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Should You Trust Your Gut Feelings At Work?

Brain scientist and Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. CEO Jeff Stibel on the true meaning of gut feelings and whether we should trust them.

Should You Trust Your Gut Feelings At Work?
[Photo: Flickr user Carsten aus Bonn]

When making decisions at your company, do you go with your heart or your gut? According to Jeff Stibel, CEO of data and credit solutions company Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., you should lead with your brain. You may believe it’s what you’ve been doing all along–leading your team with calculated logic–but it’s time to rethink your decision-making process.

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Jeff Stibel

Stibel, who has a master’s degree in brain science from Brown, lays out four guiding principles to better lead your team headfirst:

Your Gut Is All In Your Head

“Gut instinct is what your brain does. The brain is a vast prediction machine–it takes whatever information it has, it swirls it up, and it makes a guess. And that guess either proves correct or incorrect. The more you study something, the more you do something, the more your gut takes over.

“The gut is incredibly powerful as long as you have expertise. But if you’ve never swum before, the last thing you want is a gut instinct telling you that you can swim from L.A. to Catalina–you will drown. But if you’re an expert swimmer, guess what, despite the fact the odds may be against you, despite the fact the pundits might tell you that you can’t do it, your gut may just be right. And that’s where that gut becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a gut, and what do you need to do with a gut? You need to feed it, and to feed the gut of the brain you have to give it knowledge.”

You’re Not That Special–And That’s A Good Thing

“Studying the brain is an incredibly humbling, and partially embarrassing, thing to do. The first thing you learn about the brain is that it’s really not that impressive. It’s a muscle. It’s a biological machine–there’s nothing magical. And worse than that, our brains aren’t that much different. So if you walk into a room thinking you’re the smartest person, by definition that makes you the dumbest person. What you realize is all our brains are essentially the same, which, in effect, means two things: You can and should be able to learn from anyone. So you don’t ever want to discount anyone.

“And, the ideas you have that you think are good, you have to let the environment dictate that. If you look to biology for the best way to evolve and grow, it’s through natural selection, which is throwing a whole bunch of shit out there and seeing what sticks. Why be pretentious going into something new and think you have an idea, let alone the right idea? Instead, why not come up with every possible variation there is, and find a cost-effective way to test it and then you’ll know for a fact what the right answer is.”

Get Out Of Your Team’s Way

“In studying the brain, it’s given me a pretty unique perspective in leadership. The brain is virtually the central command system for our bodies. But at the same time it acts pretty autonomously–there is no little person inside our brains making decisions and pulling the strings. We learn, in essence, by fumbling through the dark and stumbling eventually into success. That pretty much sums up my leadership style, which is I try to find great people, empower them, and stay out of their way. I see my job as clearing obstacles for people as opposed to leading, and I think that’s an important distinction.”

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Get Comfortable With Failure

“People think ‘leadership’ is an action and really, it isn’t. It’s about setting the course and allowing great people to do what it is they do and holding them accountable for success, but not for failure. There’s a subtlety there that’s important: You want people to take calculated risks–you don’t want them to bet the company–but you want them to fail forward because in failure you learn. You don’t really learn from success because there are too many variables working.”

Failure is a powerful vehicle and something we practice here, and in our annual reviews, we don’t focus on success. More than half of a person’s review and, consequentially, half of someone’s bonus are tied to failure: Have you failed enough? Did you learn from your failure? Did you take calculated risks and not over-fail? How is that going to make you a better person and leader or manager in the future?”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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