The choice that feels most comfortable to your gut is often the worst decision for your bottom line. To be a truly wise decision maker, you have to adopt counterintuitive, uncomfortable, but highly profitable techniques to avoid business disasters by making the best decisions. That’s the key take-away message of this episode of the Wise Decision Maker Show, which describes the Wise Decision Maker Movement Manifesto.
Videocast: “Wise Decision Maker Movement Manifesto”
Podcast: “Wise Decision Maker Movement Manifesto”
Links Mentioned in Videocast and Podcast
- Here’s the article on the Wise Decision Maker Movement Manifesto
- The book Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters is available here
- You are welcome to register for the Wise Decision Maker Course
Hey everyone! Welcome to another episode of the Wise Decision Maker. Today we’ll talk about the underlying principles of what I do. We’ll talk about the Wise Decision Maker Manifesto. That’ll be the topic for today, so it’s going to be a little bit longer than usual because these are the underlying principles, it’s a manifesto, right? We’ll be talking about why, what are the essentials behind making good decisions and the key take away message that I want to share with you is that honestly, the biggest falsehood in advice literature on decision making, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in relationships, communication, personal life, whatever, is “go with your gut”. You’ve probably heard this often. Be authentic, or some version of it. Like, be authentic, go with your gut, follow your instincts, trust your heart, something like that. You’ve probably heard that, right? The problem is it’s really really really bad advice. This super common advice is really bad. I’m going to tell you to never go with your gut. Never, never, never go with your gut, always check with your head first before making a decision. Even if it aligns with your gut or not, you want to make sure to check with your head – analyze your decision before making the decision.
Now, I really have to say, I’m really sad, I’m frustrated, I’m angered when I see business leaders with whom I work often, usually these are not the people with whom I work. But when I see business leaders in the news and just around me, folks I know, who make really bad decisions and bring down their careers and even bring down profitable companies because they choose to go with their gut. It’s really sad, it’s really frustrating. They trust some fire-walking guru seminar where they went, and then they came back and they start going with their gut and they make really bad decisions. Or they trust their intuitions from earlier in their careers when their intuitions were a little bit more aligned with reality, we’ll talk about why they were more aligned with reality earlier in their careers but not later. So this is a big problem, people going with their gut, and I want to tell you to never go with your gut.
This might seem a little bit extreme to you that I tell you this but stick with me. I think you’ll hear what I am saying. I think you will understand why I am telling you to never go with your gut by the end of the video or so my gut tells me.
Alright, so, let’s talk about why we shouldn’t go with your gut. Why you shouldn’t and why I shouldn’t either. Well, let me tell you that when I was a kid, when I was a child, my parents told me to go with my gut, follow my heart, trust my intuitions. That was something really important and that’s something I internalized. So, when I went to school, I internalized this behavior and I behaved with other kids, in a way that was authentic to me, that I felt good about, that I felt was true to who I was. I told them about stuff I was really fascinated with, at that time it was military history and intellectual conversations. So naturally that made me the most popular kid in school. Not! I was kind of marginalized. I was a little bit of an outcast. But I kept behaving that way because I thought this was the right thing to do, my parents told me, they probably know what they are talking about. And as a kid it’s kind of hard to think about, well, with your parents – are they telling you the wrong things, right?
When I was a teenager, a little bit more in my rebellious phase, I was kind of rethinking a lot of things, including that piece of advice and that led me to my interest in decision making. Why do people – that was one of the things that led to my interest in decision making – why do people behave the way they do, including towards me? And why do I behave the way I do? Why does following my intuitions really result in this bad advice, in this bad outcome? What I learned about this topic, I did the research on this topic, started reading some scholarship, I learned that following your own gut is actually really bad advice. It really leads you into the wrong direction. If you’re not naturally inclined to do what other people enjoy and appreciate, it causes you to have bad social interactions – not a good idea. So, unless you just happen to like what the majority of people like, you will not have good outcomes from going with your gut in your relationships.
So, I started changing my behavior. I didn’t behave in an authentic manner. I behaved in a way that would appeal to other people. And really, I pretty quickly became part of the “in” crowd. You know, I remember someone saying to me, “hey, you know, you used to not be cool but, you know, but you’re cool now”. And those words really struck me. I remember them – I still remember them. I mean, the person who told me these words probably has no idea that they are striking but they’re still in me. I feel a strong sense of connection to those words and I feel kind of proud that I was able to change myself and behave in an inauthentic way but one that got me to my goals.
And here is the research behind this. Recent research shows that we’re not evolved for the modern world. Whether in business, whether in school, whether in any other social interactions, the large majority of what we do doesn’t look like that ancient savannah. But our gut intuitions, our emotions, our feelings, our instincts – that’s what they are evolved for.
And, for the sake of our bottom lines, for the sake of our relationships, for the sake of effective good personal mental and physical health, it’s very important to avoid trusting those primitive, primal, intuitive instincts and instead, be civilized. Choose to follow learned behavior ,which is the essence of civilization, right? Learned behaviors. Learned behaviors that lead you to your goal in making good decisions and having good outcomes for yourself. And that way you’ll entrust the dangerous judgment errors that scholars and cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists like myself and many others call cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are systematic and predictable errors. There are over 100 of them that we all tend to make because of the way that our brain is wired, because of our evolutionary heritage, because of the savannah and so on. This is a big problem. So, if our intuitions are such a bad match for the current world, why do so many people, so many gurus tell us to follow our gut, follow our intuitions? Because trusting our instincts feels very comfortable to us and to them. And more importantly for them and for us, we tend to choose what’s comfortable for us. So not only does it feel good to us but we choose what’s comfortable, what feels good. Because, if it feels good, it feels right. The good feeling, “this feels good”, it also is the same thing as “it feels right”, regardless of the fact that it may not be the right choice for you at all. Just like it wasn’t the right choice for me as a kid to behave in an authentic way if I wanted actual social relationships with people in my school. So that was a big problem.
So, unfortunately, you get this advice partially because gurus who tell you advice, literature that tells you to do what’s comfortable for you, they get the big bucks. People don’t want to hear that they should do what’s uncomfortable for them. People who speak uncomfortable truths usually get ignored, rather people who say, “do what you want to” and you know, they are the ones who get support and get popular and get paid.
Now, let me give you an example. What would you rather hear about? Someone describing some delicious, delightful, delectable dozen donuts or someone telling you how to maintain your physical health? Can’t you just imagine that box filled with those donuts, mmm, they’re so delicious, that Boston Cream Pie – that’s my favorite actually, chocolate glazed donuts, I like those too, strawberry jelly, custard, chocolate sprinkles, lemon cream – ooh that’s nice, that’s a nice one there. So delicious, I’m making myself hungry. Now you might be getting hungry as well hearing this and you would really, rather your gut would really rather listen to that than someone telling you uncomfortable truths about how to maintain your health, if perhaps you’re not maintaining your health as well as you could be, which sure describes most of us, you know, I’m not perfect in that regard either.
“Go with your gut.” That advice to “go with your gut” is the equivalent of the dozen donuts dessert of business advice, of relationship advice, of any other advice. That’s the equivalent. The box of donuts contains more calories than we should eat in a day. However, our gut wants the donuts. It doesn’t want the healthy but much, much less intuitively appealing dessert of having a fruit platter. So, too often we choose a dessert that’s really not good for us and we know in the back of our head it’s not really good for us. And the same thing with a business option. We choose a business option, relationship decision or someone that’s really not good for us, but we regret it later but we choose it because it’s really comfortable and appealing to us in the moment.
In that ancient savannah, why is this important? Well, why do we choose to get the dozen donuts? In the ancient savannah, which is where the gut is adapted for, it was crucial, crucial, crucial to eat as much sugar as possible. That’s what enabled us to survive. Our gut reactions still push us to eat as much sugar as possible, regardless of the fact that it’s not very good for us. So, regardless of this harm in the modern world. And at the core, making a business decision based on gut reactions is like eating a dozen donuts instead of the fruit platter. Unfortunately, many business decisions that are like this, going with your gut are actually much worse than eating a dozen donuts instead of a fruit platter.
So at this point, you might be hesitant about what I’m saying. You might tell yourself, “hey, I have a lot of advice in my business, my relationships, my personal life, following my gut intuitions”. So, great for you. Now unfortunately, the term “gut reactions” is a very fuzzy concept. It’s not clear. It describes both very useful and very trustworthy behaviors that we’ve developed and quite, quite harmful tribal primal reactions.
So, for example, there are a lot of terms for intuitive behaviors that you might have learned. You might have learned to how to delegate effectively without micromanaging. That’s a really, really hard behavior to learn. It’s very unintuitive to us. But you learned it. You might have learned how to manage your time effectively. That’s a really hard behavior to learn. Can you think about it? It’s not intuitive at all to manage our time effectively. Maybe you learned how to do your sales pitch and immediately recognize whether it’s good for you or not. That’s a hard behavior. It’s not intuitive at all. Maybe you learned to not interrupt your spouse when they’re speaking. That’s a very unintuitive behavior for us as well.
So, all of these unintuitive behaviors are behaviors that you have learned over time. And your decisions in these areas might be very quick, might very intuitive and very active. You might feel in your intuitions that you’re going with your gut. But what you are essentially doing is following a pattern of learned behaviors that you’ve internalized. And you’ve turned them into the equivalent of instincts. Just like you learned how to drive a car, right now you are not thinking about how to drive a car, you are just driving it, you’re driving it automatically. And that’s good, you know, it’s bad to think about all the ways there are of driving a car. So those instincts are quite trust-worthy. Now, think about it, you wouldn’t let someone drive a car without taking a driving course, would you? Of course, you wouldn’t.
But business leaders don’t go for a decision-making course and get a decision-making license in order to go up in their positions of authority and become decision makers. Decision-makers from the basic level to a position of authority and then from that position of authority into an even higher, and higher, and higher, and higher authority. They simply observe other leaders, do what they do and they internalize the behaviors of those leaders, both bad behaviors and good behaviors. Unfortunately what happens in our minds is that we can’t tell the difference emotionally. We can’t tell the difference between tribal behaviors, ones that are instinctive and have come from the savannah and behaviors that result from healthy learned patterns where we make very quick and very accurate and very effective decisions. It can feel just as intuitive to grab another donut as it can feel to delegate your decisions effectively, to delegate effectively to a subordinate or to not interrupt your spouse while you are talking to your spouse. That’s why you should never go with your instincts and you should never go with your gut.
Instead you should evaluate whether each internal impulse you get is coming from a place of accurate learned effective knowledge, or if it’s coming from a new area where you don’t have a history of making quick effective, critically important decisions or even not critically important, but just quick and effective decisions. If you don’t have a history of making those decisions or, if you don’t have a history of making necessarily accurate decisions, then you don’t want to trust that instinct. You know, we often feel, “this feels right”, or “this just doesn’t feel right”. Don’t trust that instinct. It’s often going to be based on the savannah environment. It might well be one of the over 100 dangerous judgement errors that we call cognitive biases that we tend to make as human beings.
So, what we want to do is verify with your head, analyze the situation rather than going with your gut. Even in cases where you think you can rely on your intuition, it’s best to just slow down, and take the time to check with your head, to analyze the situation and make sure you are making the best decision for each situation. And of course, if it’s a minor decision, you don’t take much time to think about it. If it’s more of a major decision, you want to take more time to think this.
Now I’ll give you and example where it feel that you know a lot about a situation, and you can trust your instincts. But it might seem surprising that you actually can’t. So, let’s say you know someone for a while, and you know them pretty well. You have an accurate read on them. And you get together with them, let’s say a business collaborator, and you get together with them one day and they seem really weird. They seem really hesitant. They are shifty. They are uncomfortable, they seem stressed. And the usual response to that according to extensive literature on deception lying and so on is to simply not trust that person and say, “okay, I’m not trusting what this person is saying, that’s just bad”.
What actually happens in reality is that this person might have just gotten some bad news. You know, their spouse could have been in a car accident and they’re worried about what is happening in that situation. Or they might have got some bad business news, their critical supplier might have fallen down and they are worried about what to do. They are still having the meeting with you. So you shouldn’t pre-judge in those situations, In fact, there is extensive research, and you will be surprised by this, showing that the CIA, the FBI, various police agencies, and the NSA, the security officers, the officers who work there can’t tell if somebody is lying or not. They score about as well as dart throwing chimpanzees of determining whether someone is lying or not. The only agency, actually, in the United States whose officers can really determine whether someone is lying or not, statistically significant probability is the Secret Service. So, FYI. So, if the CIA can’t do it, you probably aren’t going to be that great at doing it either. So, you want to decrease your confidence in knowing whether someone is lying.
I will give you another example, think about market changes. This is one of the biggest causes that brings down successful companies. Failing to notice important shifts in the market contexts, in those cases your extensive experience in the markets, your success, right? Your successful career, your successful business is actually causing you to make wrong decisions. You are kind of like a fish out of water. You are making decisions based on a context that’s not true anymore. So, it will cause you to miss crucial new threats and new opportunities. It will be really bad for you, you don’t want to do that. It may bring you to, in fact, it has brought many people to ruin, because more nimble competitors, younger people who haven’t been in your business for as long, but who can observe the shifting market, or newer companies are more nimble than your existing large business are able to adapt to the market much more carefully, much more quickly than you can. So that’s one more example. One from relationships, and one from broader strategy.
I’m going to tell you something that might make you feel uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable is traditional business strategic advice meant to address these things is really.. it doesn’t work very well, let’s just say it that way, because it doesn’t take into account the judgment errors that we tend to make as human beings. The most prominent example here is SWOT, where a group of business leaders tries to figure out the Strengths, the Weaknesses, the Opportunities, and the Threats facing their organization or their project. Now the problem with SWOT assessments is they really by and large fail to account for the cognitive biases we tend to suffer from. So that group that gets together and thinks about these things, they tend to very often suffer from problems like “groupthink” where they align on the opinions of the most prominent leader in that group, the most prominent, powerful person. And as a result, their assessments of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats just happens to be the same as that person’s as opposed to getting their various opinions together and figuring out the actual strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. That’s just one of the many problems with SWOT and I can name many others.
Unfortunately, SWOT and similar assessments provide a false sense of comfort and security. I’ve seen this really often. People do the SWOT and they think “we are safe, we did the SWOT, we’re okay”, and they result in very bad oversights that often lead to business disasters and career disasters. You don’t want to do that.
So, I want to get back to my story growing up because this is important for how I learned and decided to focus on this stuff and why making judgment errors in business and addressing judgment errors in business is really important to me and I think to you.
So, I had that idea that “going with your gut” is already pretty bad when I was in my early teens. Then I came of age. So I was born in 1981 and around the time the dot com boom and bust happened in the 90s, early 2000s, I was becoming an adult essentially. And so I started following, really seriously following what was happening in the world and it was pretty shocking to me when I was looking at this that smart business people invested many many many millions, billions of dollars into companies that really didn’t have a profitable scheme of business. It was unclear to me how webvan or pet.com of these other companies would make a business. Many of them, they would say that they are ahead of their time, but that means that they are not profitable. And they wouldn’t be profitable for another two decades. Or something like that.
It was a really bad situation and so, when the bust happened a lot of people lost millions and billions of dollars. That was very sad for me to see. What was even more frustrating was the accounting scandals that were happening. Oh, God, Oh that was incredibly frustrating, the accounting scandals with Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom. That was really terrible. Where prominent top of the line business leaders were engaging in scamming investors through fraudulent market practices. Reporting false profits. They used illegal accounting practices in order to cover-up their losses from the dot com boom and bust.
So that was what was happening. Now, this was far from all business leaders. The large majority of business leaders at that time were quite ethical. They honestly reported their losses. But unfortunately, these huge top companies, WorldCom, Tyco, Enron, they used fraudulent accounting practices to cover up their losses.
Now, these leaders, the leaders of these companies, they must have known that their crimes would be discovered eventually. They must have known that they would receive huge financial penalties and go to jail, as many of them did for their crimes. But they still kept committing their crimes. It seems irrational on the face of it. Why would they do that? Why would they risk their reputations and their lives, you know, the jail sentences to do so? Well the best explanation for this seemly irrational behavior comes from them following their gut. It comes from them choosing the dozen donuts instead of the fruit platter.
It’s not like they.. just to be clear, it’s not like they needed the money. You know, they got one more year of the huge salaries, right? They didn’t need the money, they had plenty of money already, they had plenty of money in their bank accounts. They still do. What happened based on later investigations into it, into the machinations, into their motivations, is that their desperate, increasingly desperate lies and scamming of many, many investors including people, largely people who were working in these companies whose retirement accounts were destroyed, it came from them not wanting to be seen as failures. They didn’t want to be seen as failures in the eyes of fellow peer business leaders. That was the biggest, biggest motivation, not wanting to be seen as failures. Wanting to be seen as winners as opposed to losers. Now, I coach and consult with a lot of business leaders and I have conversations with them and this fear of failure is one of the biggest, biggest drivers of business leaders. One of their biggest things that causes them to function, that causes them to wake up, go to work in the morning. They do not want to be seen as losers, they want to be seen as winners. And money is just a measure of comparing of who is a bigger winner and who is not. They have way more than enough money to live on. Money is just a means of keeping score of who is the winner and who is not. You know, their identity, their ego is very often tied into being seen as a winner and not being seen as a loser, their social status is tied to it. If they were losers, if they became losers as opposed to winners, for many of them, it would be an intolerable blow to their sense of identity, to their self, to their sense of who they are.
Have your ever felt that way? Can you empathize with them? Now, think about it. Regardless of your social station, what would it be like for you if your peers saw you as a loser? Imagine their side-glances when they think you’re not looking. Imagine what they would say about you behind your back. Imagine when they are thinking about you that they’re shaking their head, they’re thinking, “how far that person fell from what a high position”. Can you imagine yourself doing something that you otherwise wouldn’t to prevent that situation? I think some of you can. I think some of you can.
This is a drive to win. It’s one of our primary primal instincts, it stems from the savannah instinct to climb to the top of the social tribal hierarchy because that guaranteed survival and procreation for us. Survival and for our children to survive. So that was really important. It remains one of our most important motivators, most powerful motivators. Far from all of us but for people who tend to become business leaders, it really is. For people who tend to get ahead, this ambition, drive to win, it becomes a very potent motivator. It does a lot of good, when harnessed to good social outcomes, it does a lot of good. I have to say, it does a great deal. I’m ambitious, I want to win, I am sure many of you do as well. But unfortunately, it can also lead to a lot of damage, a lot of evil as it did with Enron and Tyco and Worldcom and, you know, the Ponzi schemes, you know, Bernie Madoff, all of that. It can lead to terrible outcomes with a great deal of suffering.
Now, why do I care about suffering? Well my ethical moral code is utilitarian. So, I care a great deal about doing the most good for the most number, that’s what being utilitarian means, Utilitarianism, that’s what it’s about. So being a utilitarian, I want to prevent suffering, I really, really, really, want to prevent suffering. And I saw that and with my existing knowledge of decision making already from being an early teen and studying this stuff and people were behaving in not very nice ways toward me. I decided to continue my study. I decided to become a coach, consultant, speaker, and trainer for mainly business leaders and their organizations. And this was something I wanted to do because of how much business leaders impacted the people around them. Think about it. They run huge companies, or small companies, or mid-size companies but they still impact a great deal of people. If they make the right decisions, unlike the leaders of Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco, their employees and other people around them, their communities will be in a much better shape and will have much reduced suffering. So that’s why I decided to do what I do to help them fight cognitive biases and make the best decisions. For the sake of, again, of themselves, their organizations and society and community as a whole.
Unfortunately, the biggest disasters happen to people who are often the most successful. And here, I’m coming to something I mentioned in the beginning, why these disasters happen to people who are most successful like the business leaders I work with, I consult with, I coach with, I train. They usually occur for a couple of reasons. One is that these successful people tend to use what has worked for them in the past. I mentioned this as a problem when you are working with a specific market and the market shifts around you. It also happens when your context shifts without you. Without the market shifting but your context shifts. Let’s say you go from one company to another, and you tend to do, you know, you go from being the CEO of one company to the CEO of another or the COO or the CFO of one company to the COO or the CFO of another company and you keep doing what you have been doing because you know that worked. But in the new company it doesn’t work for some reason. And you don’t, intuitively understand that what you are doing is not working because you have a strong sense of confidence that you know what the right thing is to do which is what worked in the past. Or if you get promoted from a lower-level position to a higher-level position. Let’s say you were a lower-level manager and you were promoted to a higher-level managerial position. That’s another context shift, so, many people, you might have heard of the Peter principle where people get promoted to the level of their incompetence. Basically where they are not given sufficient training and they are promoted because of seniority, their ability to do the previous job not their new job. So that’s one problem, they get put in a new context without sufficient training, they don’t succeed.
Another problem of that promotion higher-level is that they get cut off, increasingly get cut off from sources of information on which they could rely and which they could trust. The higher up in the organization you go, the less reliable information becomes. It’s just the case, unless you really fight this hard in your organization, it’s just going to be the case that reports that go up are going to be less reliable – they’re gonna look better than they are. Because people don’t want to share negative information and pass it up the chain, the hierarchy chain because you have the “shoot the messenger effect”, which is one of the cognitive biases also called the “Mum effect” where people who send negative information up the chain of command are punished for it, so the problem happens very often. And this tendency explains why people who are successful at a lower-level fail when they get promoted to a higher-level. Or people are successful in one company fail when they go to another company. And that’s something to really watch out for.
And so, if you learn about these dangerous judgment errors, however successful you are right now, you’re going to be head and shoulders above others who have not learned about these dangerous judgment errors. And especially if you learn about the specific steps you need to address them. Learning about these dangerous judgment errors, to use the previous metaphor is like learning that you should eat healthy things. Well Gee Whiz, right! Who cares that you should eat healthy things? Now, it’s important knowledge to have. It’s important knowledge to have that you should eat healthy things, that you will get fat and you will get obese and you will have various health problems if you eat unhealthy things. But if you don’t have the specific healthy things that you need to eat and what to avoid, then you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. You’re actually not going to be able to accomplish your goal of eating healthy things.
And learning about the specific techniques that I talk about in the Wise Decision Maker Manifesto and many other places in my content to address cognitive biases is what you’ll need to do in order to take the steps to address these dangerous judgement errors.
Now I will also strongly encourage you to spread this information into your workplace. You know, other people you work with might not intuitively appreciate immediately, the information that you share because many of them will trust the advice to go with their gut. They’ve heard it often. You know, it will take a lot of time, a lot of exposure to the information to change their ways, but keep at it. They will really appreciate it and the end and you can forward them the Wise Decision Maker Manifesto and other content that I create to help them understand why it’s important to change their behavior and go with strategies that are not intuitive, that are uncomfortable. Now this is something that my personal code of ethics, utilitarianism tells me to spread, and I hope you will find other people who you care about avoid suffering the consequences of dangerous judgment errors as well and I hope you will spread this information.
Here is the key take away from all of this: the choice that feels most comfortable to your gut is often the worst, worst decision for your bottom line. Far from always, but often. That’s why you should never, never, never simply go with your gut, you should always check with your head. And there are lots of effective strategies that you can adopt. Effective, effective strategies, but they’re counter-intuitive, they’re uncomfortable, but they’re highly profitable. Highly profitable for your bottom line, for your relationships, for your health. That’s what will help you avoid disasters and maximize your success by making the best decisions possible.
Alright, so, I want to again encourage you to check out the Wise Decision Maker Manifesto – it goes into much more depth in a lot of links that you can check it out, it’s linked in the notes to this episode. My goal as always is to provide you with extremely high value in helping you avoid threat and seize opportunities and solve various problems that you might be experiencing to make the best decisions. I hope I’ve been able to do that by talking about the underlying principles of why you should never simply go with your gut and you should always check with your head.
And, I want to ask you, now that you have watched this, what did you think about the dangers of going with your gut? Share about this in the comments section. And if you liked this episode, please click “like” and share it with others who you want to help avoid decision disasters. Make sure to click “subscribe” so you don’t miss any content on these effective, counter-intuitive, uncomfortable but highly profitable strategies to avoid decision disasters. And you can learn much more in my book on this topic. Unsurprisingly it’s titled “Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Business Leaders Avoid Disasters and Make the Best Decisions”. The best free I can offer on this topic, if you are not able to get my book at this time is to sign up for my Wise Decision Maker Course. It’s, again, linked in the show notes.
I hope to see you on the next episode of Wise Decision Maker and wise decisions to you my friends.
Originally published at Disaster Avoidance Experts on November 30, 2019.