How often do you rely on your gut instincts to make decisions at work?

Many top business leaders regularly use their gut instincts to make decisions, but should they?

Intuition (i.e., gut instinct) and critical thinking are distinct in many ways; they reflect different thinking systems and are believed to depend on different brain structures. There is still much to learn about decision making, but research in the business and cognitive neuroscience fields support the importance of both decision-making approaches.

Which approach is superior?

The answer is that it depends on the situation.

Let’s start by focusing on when gut instinct is useful.

Imagine if we had to pause and critically think about every business or personal decision we make on a daily basis. Our lives would quickly become overwhelming and exhausting. That’s where intuition comes in.

Rather than engaging in deliberate thought about the numerous possible options and systematically weighing all the pros and cons of those options to arrive at a decision, we can come to quick decisions by doing what feels right.

Even though we feel like we are not actively thinking, in reality, cognitive processes are occurring below the level of our conscious awareness. Our brains act as pattern recognition machines to recognize familiar patterns in the world around us and to determine how best to act in response to these patterns.

These decisions often feel very easy, but they are not uninformed decisions; these mental shortcuts are developed through the accumulation of a wealth of experiences about the world around us over time.

For the numerous routine decisions we make on a daily basis, it makes sense to rely on gut instinct to guide behavior.

However, using your gut instinct will not always lead to optimal decisions, so executive leadership training needs to include training that helps leaders recognize when their gut instincts will fail them.

When shouldn’t gut instincts be trusted?

Here are some situations when relying on intuition will fail you in the business world:

• When You Take on a New Role

For example, consider what happens when you become a first-time manager.

The transition from being a worker on a team to being the leader of the team can be extremely challenging because the attributes and behaviors that made you a successful worker to the point of getting promoted to manager will not necessarily make you a successful leader.

Instead of focusing on just your own responsibilities and thinking about doing the work yourself, as a manager, you have to think about doing the work through others. You also must possess a more holistic systems view of your organization to make good decisions.

You can no longer apply the thinking and behavioral habits you employed in the past to deliver results. This necessitates that you think critically to determine how you can best deliver results in your new role.

• When Your Experiences Involve Incorrect or Now Irrelevant Information

Consider what happens when a new leader takes over your organization and decides to shift the direction of your company from a product-focused company to a service-focused company.

The goals of your company would drastically shift. If you are still making decisions based on the outdated product-based framework, you will not be making appropriate decisions to support the new direction of your company and thus will likely not be successful within this new framework.

In both examples, you are facing novel situations and must acquire new learning to excel. To acquire all this learning, you cannot simply use your gut instinct; these situations clearly compel you to engage in deeper thinking. It is only through this deeper thinking that you can shift how you think and behave in the ways necessary for success.

Given that it is not always the most suitable approach, why do people in the business world depend so heavily on intuition? Not only does using our intuition feel right, it seems to be the expedient choice when we are facing tight timelines; analysis paralysis is a very real fear within our fast-paced VUCA business world. Also, because extreme stress has detrimental effects on the prefrontal cortex (the brain region necessary for critical thinking), it is more difficult to effectively engage in critical thinking during stressful periods.

For these reasons, people tend to default to using gut instinct. The problem is that they often do not realize the limits of this approach or the consequences of depending so heavily on intuition, especially during times of change when old ways of thinking and behaving will not lead to successful outcomes.

The solution is not to do away with intuition. Both intuition and critical thinking have important roles in our daily professional and personal lives. Mental shortcuts help us deal with the numerous routine decisions we are bombarded with on a daily basis and provide us with the mental space to focus our conscious attention on issues that need deeper consideration. The key is to recognize the types of situations in which intuition falls short and to engage in critical thinking in those situations.

Executive leadership training programs can address this in a variety of ways, from discussing the neuroscience that drives different decision-making processes to encouraging leaders to reach self-generated insights about decision making through experiential learning activities such as simulations. By tackling this issue head-on, executive leadership training programs can train business leaders to make better decisions and ultimately become better leaders.

Dr. Grace Chang is a cognitive neuroscientist focused on applying research to the business world. As Chief Scientific Officer for The Regis Company, she is driving initiatives in learning and assessment to enhance their neuroscience-based business solutions.