What they’ve learnt: Balancing data and instinct

This week, we’re continuing looking at the things that some of our clients have learnt throughout the time we’ve been working together. We’re looking at how we can “trust our gut feeling but back it up with data”.

The idea of a gut feeling can conjure up images of impulsiveness and making decisions on a whim. This general misunderstanding has led people to believe that the decision making process can be driven by data and logic alone, completely removed from emotional input. The reality is that data and emotions go hand in hand – often without intentionally doing so.

We’re all familiar with our gut feeling. It’s that niggling feeling when you are convinced that something is either right or wrong. Data, however, is the cold hard facts that tell you exactly what you should do according to what has happened in the past – how many units you sold last year, the clicks you get on your email newsletter and the trends you are seeing in your business.

Working with Cameron Paxton, Director of Sales, Toyota Material Handling Australia, was an opportunity to explore gut instinct and data. Cameron would be the first to admit he’s about the data. He said to me about coaching:

“I’m a bit of a cynic and you really have to earn my trust – I don’t trust easily and while I was trying to figure him out as a coachee, he was trying figure me out too.”

The funny thing is, Cameron was relying on his gut instinct to decide if ours was a coaching relationship that would work (trust is relational and draws often on instincts)  while drawing on data to justify his decision. For example, he shared to me: “You’re not a theorist, but very practical!”

Having been at the head of major organisations, my real operational experience and track record was important to Cameron (the data). Which is what I want to unpack in today’s article.

Can decision making ever be done on data or instinct alone?

Making a decision based on instinct alone can be a tricky way to operate, especially within a team. Your team members will want to know exactly why you’re making a decision and simply answering ‘I had a gut feeling’ will not cut it in most situations. Personal biases, emotions and general office politics can warp your instinct so much that your decisions may be wrong or simply misguided.

Unfortunately, without instinct and emotions we would struggle to determine the value of one thing over another so prioritising becomes difficult and decisions simply do not get made. If a decision somehow does get made, the chances are that it was made without taking other people’s feelings or positions into account – a terrible approach to decision making in a team environment. In addition to all this, data can only ever give us an accurate picture of past performance, not future performance so while it can inform, we need our emotions and gut instinct to make an appropriate decision going forward.

What happens when the data contradicts my gut feeling?

Sometimes, the data will give us information that just doesn’t align to our gut feeling. This can be difficult to swallow but thinking critically about the information in front of us is necessary.

41% of UK business leaders are worried about data quality, accuracy and completeness – so it’s natural not to trust the data in front of you. It could be that the data is wrong. Again, past performance is not an indicator of future performance, so use your instinct and your emotions to feel out what would be the best decision.

If you decide to make a decision based on your gut feeling, always do your best to find the data that backs you up – do not ever cherry pick information simply to back yourself up. Be transparent at all times.

If you do make the decision based on your instinct and it all goes horribly wrong it is your responsibility, as a leader, to take the responsibility for it. Never play the blame game with the data or with your team. Risk taking is important and it could pay off but remember to take the credit whichever way it falls.

At the end of the day, your decisions are almost always being influenced by both your instinct and data, even if you don’t realise it. Start intentionally consulting both information and emotions to make the decisions that will help your organisation move forward.

If you’re ready to start utilising data to backup your gut feelings in decision making, People Make the Difference can help. To find out more, visit www.pmtd.com.au or call us on 0412 333 415. Our online leadership training videos start from $99 for a year’s access, with new video training added each quarter. Great value if you’re committed to growing your leadership potential.