Human Instincts: How Business Leaders Use Their Gut to Make Decisions

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Small business leaders carry a massive responsibility for making choices that create success in their organizations. This involves a sea of decision making about vision, mission, budgeting, hiring, policies, products, services and more. Each one of these decisions could have more than one right answer from an intellectual perspective, so choosing the best answer for your business can get tricky.

Learning to harness the power of your gut and human instincts in making choices among reasonable alternatives can help you lead your organization to success more easily and efficiently.

Human Instinct Definition

As human beings, we have basic instincts that help us survive and make our way through life on a more guttural level than just our intellect. Some of the strongest human instincts could include:

  • Finding sustenance
  • Seeking intimacy
  • Being defensive or protective 
  • Connecting socially
  • Learning
  • Communicating

Leaders often spread themselves thin trying to serve their teams or do it all, but basic instincts can help them achieve balance so their work is more sustainable over the long haul. Instinctive behavior examples in the workplace could include when your tummy begins to rumble when it is 2 p.m., and you haven't had anything to eat, so your human instincts for sustenance lead you to eat a cheeseburger.

Your human instincts for social connection and communication could lure you out of your office to interact with co-workers after working on a grant proposal for four hours straight. Your instinct to learn will press you to ask, "Why?" when the same problems creep up every year at the same time.

Human Instincts vs. Gut Instincts

While human instincts help us to survive in very basic ways, when people talk about following their gut instincts, they are usually referring to something slightly different. It could be that much research went into deciding a product launch date, and everyone has signed off on it, but something in the leader's "gut" causes him to feel like it's not going to be a wise move. That gnawing feeling of knowing something isn't right could have root causes like fear and anger.

On the surface, it might seem silly to hear those gut feelings, but Duke University researchers have found that the gut actually contains its own nervous system that releases serotonin and sends messages to the brain about things like:

  • Hunger and fullness
  • Well-being
  • Intuition
  • Motivation
  • Necessity for action
  • Desire to act

These signals are intertwined with our sense of identity and courage, so when you feel a lot of fear and trepidation about making an important decision, it's vital to take note and respond to what is happening in your gut. Since the gut sends these messages to the brain, that means it literally knows when something is wrong before the rational decision making centers in the front of your brain.

Learn to Pause

It's hard to tune in to what your gut is telling you when the mental chatter in your brain feels like five radio stations playing on full blast all at once. So, the first step toward using your gut in decision making is often to calm the mind.

Phone apps like Headspace, Abide and Calm offer shorter or longer meditations that help you focus on the present moment so your brain can slow down. Products like the emWave Bluetooth teach you to use heart-focused breathing, where you imagine breathing in and out through the area of your heart.

Some people find physical activity helpful in calming the mind, so consider going for a walk, hike or run. Yoga, Pilates, qigong and tai chi are other movement options to help slow down mental chatter and experience the peace necessary to really listen to what your gut has to say. If you are stuck in the office and cannot get out, even a few simple stretches at your desk or a trip up and down a flight of stairs could be helpful.

Learn to Listen

When you are able to calm the chatter in your brain, it becomes easier to listen to your body and pay attention to the emotions and physical sensations you are experiencing. After all, you experience emotions in your body, not in your brain, and emotions are important to informing your business decisions. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where in my body do I feel tension?
  • What emotions am I experiencing? 
  • Do I feel butterflies or a knot in my stomach?
  • Are my shoulders or back tense?
  • Am I experiencing more sensation in my gut or in my heart?

Just like the gut has its own nervous system, the heart does too, and it actually sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to it. The field of neurocardiology offers many insights about how to increase health and decision-making skills by taking advantage of the "heart brain".

HeartMath has designed a freeze-frame technique that is useful to small business leaders and others making difficult choices. In this technique, you simply breathe in and out through the area of the heart, recall a positive emotion from the past to re-experience, ask a question of your heart and listen for an answer or intuitive guidance.

Be True to Yourself

As a small business leader, chances are good that you have a lot of people around you who all have opinions on how you should run your business and what decisions you should make. While their input is valuable, in the end, trusting yourself and being true to who you are is most important. There is only one you, and nobody else will ever run your business exactly like you, so you can burn yourself out if you try to keep everyone else happy all the time.

Instead, consider that your gut could be going beyond human instinct, meaning the advice it offers you is just as valid as the information you think up in your mind during a big brainstorming session. When your mind is calmed, and you have tapped into the sensations and experiences in your body, you will likely discover a lot about your emotions, intuition and what resonates or just feels wrong about your business. It is OK to trust these instincts and act on them without getting caught in the trap of constant people pleasing.

Check Your Gut

While trusting your gut in business can sometimes yield some spectacular results, this is not always the case. The best decisions happen when you combine your gut instinct with wisdom from your heart and head to make choices that align with all three. The heart specializes in information regarding the following areas:

  • Love
  • Care 
  • Compassion
  • Joy
  • Appreciation
  • Empathy
  • Connection
  • Trust

Meanwhile, your brain also has vital contributions to bring to the table when it comes to important business decisions. Your brain specializes in things like:

  • Analysis
  • Fact finding
  • Clarity
  • Perspective

The gut brain and the heart brain send information to the head brain through the vagus nerve, and all three systems are meant to work together. So, when your gut is telling you it's time to be ambitious and take swift action about an upcoming product launch, check with your heart brain and head brain to see if they are also on the same page. If your heart is having trust issues, and your brain goes on a fact-finding mission and discovers that your timing could be a month too soon for highest demand, your gut feelings might change and align with that information.

Make Informed Decisions

In the business world, when people think about making informed decisions, they often think about digging up all the intellectual research and facts they can muster, but even the best research will not tell you the whole story. Imagine a world where our business strategies are devoid of motivation, trust and joy. Business leaders sometimes find themselves making questionable ethical choices when they leave their heart and gut out of the equation. They refuse to follow any human instinct, meaning they want logical facts for every choice they make.

You can avoid this trap in your business decisions by intentionally building in time and space to tap into guidance from your gut and your heart. Bill Gates is famous for his twice yearly reading week, where he becomes unreachable and focuses on learning and personal growth. Some nonprofit organizations require their leaders to take quarterly retreats in solitude, while other companies design tech-free times or zones where people can simply tap into their experiences to focus on innovation.

Making a daily practice of meditation, HeartMath, yoga, Pilates, exercise, journaling, reading or spiritual practices is an excellent way to make space for informed decision making that integrates your head, your heart and your gut.

Evaluate the Results

The wisest business leaders understand that they cannot possibly make perfect decisions all the time. Even when they value human instinct, meaning they choose to make informed decisions that integrate head, heart and gut, sometimes things don't work out. When a decision does not yield the results you hope, evaluate your results by asking yourself questions like:

  • What is one thing I would do differently next time?
  • What is one thing I would do the same?
  • What information was I missing?
  • Did I choose based on my gut, heart, head or all three?
  • What can I learn from this? 
  • Are there ethical issues present?
  • Who has more knowledge in this area than I do?

Then, remember to pause and calm your mind, listen to guidance from your gut and heart and then learn from your reflections. Just like your gut can help you make better business choices, it can also help you learn from poor ones.

Change and Try Again

As you practice using your gut in challenging business situations along with reflecting on the results of your business decisions, your decision-making skills will improve. For instance, if you hired a new administrative assistant based on her perfect resume and your heart's compassion for her, but she ended up being a dud, perhaps you were ignoring your gut.

Upon reflection, you might remember that your gut was nudging you to not trust this candidate's ambition, but you ignored it. Next time you hire, you can choose to intentionally listen to this human instinct, meaning you hire someone more capable because you include your gut in the process.

Alternatively, maybe your gut led you astray by encouraging you to hire someone quickly to get a jump start on a time-sensitive marketing project, while your heart and your mind knew none of the candidates you interviewed were the right one. You ignore your heart and head, hire an employee based on only your gut and end up regretting it when his marketing strategies fall flat and you lose a lot of money. Next time you hire candidates, you can choose to double check your gut with your heart and your head before offering someone the job.