Most executives did not get to where they are without keen instincts. When the time comes to make a decision, a leader relies largely on his or her gut – that is simply a fact of life. We would not suggest that gut instincts ever be taken out of the decision-making process, but there are times that process can be strengthened by objective analysis to reduce the risk often involved with extremely important judgments.

All of us use the experiences we’ve built throughout our lives as the basis for our gut instincts; we often chart a course of action without considering the logical components of those actions. You need look no further than today’s bitterly divisive, toxic political environment to see examples of unbridled gut instinct kicking logic and reason to the curb.

But gut reactions aren’t limited to large-scale, sweeping applications; they are an everyday occurrence. On your drive to work today, you more than likely reacted to some sort of traffic development, such as having to swerve out of the way of a reckless driver impinging on your lane. You didn’t have time to logically and coolly consider all of your available options. You had to make a move, so you made it.

Some of today’s most advanced neuroscience research suggests that our brains act in a similar fashion even when making decisions in much less stressful scenarios. Many times, people unconsciously weigh emotional tags associated with memory rather than consciously weighing the pros and cons of a particular decision in a rational manner. We feel before we think.

It is ludicrous, obviously, to argue that business leaders should always disregard their instincts and make critical decisions solely on a logical, objective basis. You cannot ignore your gut, nor should you. Your instincts frame the manner in which you look at a particular decision. They have a massive influence on the options you choose to consider and how you gather data. They even help determine what people you listen to and what people you largely ignore. Even when you tell yourself you are going to be cool and rational, you can never completely discount your instinct.

However, it is imperative that you protect your decision-making process from long-held biases. Doing so means learning when you can trust your gut instincts, and when you need to take a more analytical tack. Here are some suggestions how to make that vital distinction.

Have you been here before?

Drawing upon experience can be a powerful way to ensure sound decision-making. The subconscious mind relies on the recognition of patterns. If we have an ample amount of applicable memories that we can scan regarding a certain important decision, the better chance we have of making the correct decision. Chess masters, for example, have a huge bank of memories they can call upon regarding whatever situation occurs during a match. That is why they can make crisp, correct decisions in as little as six seconds.

Just because we have a bank of memories to draw upon does not mean they will help us make a sound choice, however. There have been plenty of terrible decisions based on a wealth of experience when that experience was not applicable to the particular situation.

The importance of feedback

You can have all the experience in the world, but it is not only useless if you did not learn the right lessons, it can be downright crippling. If you do not receive productive feedback then it is easy for you to take decisive action and automatically feel good about it. If you don’t have frank, honest feedback – basically, if you are surrounded by “yes men” – then it will be nearly impossible for you to receive any kind of objective assessment on past decisions. If those past decisions were bad, and you rely on past experience in making those bad decisions, that will only lead to even more bad decisions and more after that. “Yes men” are a pox on clear-headed, objective and effective decision-making. If you have people filtering bad news or protecting you from it, you are doomed to making one faulty judgment after another. Take a long, hard look at the people around you – if you are surrounded by sycophants, your enterprise’s downward slide will only continue to get worse.

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