Irrational Instincts

Decisions based on gut reactions can have devastating consequences. But, fret not. Author Gleb Tsipursky's eight-step decision-making model can help you out.

Published 4 years ago on Mar 14, 2020 4 minutes Read

"Go with your gut" is the business advice equivalent of the chocolate caramel brownie with mint chocolate chip ice cream dessert. It contains more calories in a single serving than we should eat in a whole day, but our gut tells us to go with the brownie instead of the fruit platter. Too often, we choose a dessert that we later regret (myself included).

In the ancient savanna, it was critical for humans to eat as much sugar as possible to survive. In the modern environment, our gut reactions still pull us to do so, despite the harm caused by eating too many brownies. Simply knowing the drawbacks is insufficient protection. I'll admit that cheesecake is my Achilles' heel, although I've gotten much better at making wiser decisions- in my eating, business, and other life areas-using the strategies described in this book.

Making a business decision based on gut reactions comes from the same impulse as eating brownies instead of fruit, even though the business decision might have more devastating consequences. However, unlike the extensive research-based public messages regarding our health, we have only recently started to discover and popularize research about how to manage our intuitions around business decision-making to ensure the health of our businesses and careers.

You might convince yourself that you've made a lot of good decisions when you follow your gut. Unfortunately, the term gut reaction is used broadly in business contexts to refer to all sorts of internal impulses. This excessively fuzzy concept spans both very useful and trustworthy habits you developed for making quality decisions on the job as well as dangerous intuitions and instincts from our ancestors. As a leader, you might have learned counterintuitive behaviors to delegate tasks effectively and avoid micromanaging, or how to glance quickly at a department's profit and loss statement and recognize what needs to be addressed, or hear a sales pitch and immediately evaluate whether it's a good fit for your needs.

Your decisions might be quick, intuitive, and accurate, and it might feel like you're going with your gut. However, remember that these are acquired skills for which you had to learn to do the right thing rather than trust your instincts, just like you learned to drive a car and can now do so automatically. 

Eight-Step Decision-Making Model

It is tragic that business leaders consider making the best decisions as the key hallmark of business success, yet they treat the process of decision-making as something intuitive and almost magical, to be acquired only by hard-earned experience or possessed by a select few genius CEOs who deserve a top-notch pay package. The reality is that a first-rate decision-making process is teachable and learnable, and it boils down to an eight-step model for any significant decision. Unfortunately, the leaders of small, midsize, and large businesses and nonprofits often skip critical steps of the model, leading them to the fate of the bankrupt companies discussed by Carroll and Mui.

  • IDENTIFY THE NEED FOR A DECISION TO BE MADE: Such recognition bears particular weight when there's no explicit crisis that cries out for a decision or when your intuition makes it uncomfortable to acknowledge the need for a tough decision. The best decision-makers take initiative to recognize the need for decisions before they become an emergency, and they don't let gut reactions cloud their decision-making capacity,
  • GATHER RELEVANT INFORMATION FROM A VARIETY OF INFORMED PERSPECTIVES ON THE ISSUE AT HAND: Value especially those opinions with which you disagree, because they empower you to distance yourself from the comfortable reliance on your gut instincts and help you recognize potential bias blind spots.
  • DECIDE ON THE GOALS YOU WANT TO REACH AND PAINT A CLEAR VISION OF THE DESIRED OUTCOME: Use the data from step two to accomplish this step. It is particularly important to recognize when a seemingly one-time decision is a symptom of an underlying issue with processes and practices. Address these root problems as part of the outcome you want to achieve.
  • DEVELOP CLEAR DECISION-MAKING CRITERIA TO EVALUATE OPTIONS: These criteria will show you how to get to your vision.
  • GENERATE VIABLE OPTIONS THAT CAN ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS: We frequently fall into the trap of generating insufficient options to make the best decisions, especially for solving underlying challenges, so it's important to generate more options than seems intuitive to us. Also, remember that this is a brainstorming step, so don't judge options, even though they might seem outlandish or politically unacceptable. In my experience, the optimal choice often involves elements drawn from out-of-the-box and innovative options.
  • WEIGH THESE OPTIONS AND PICK THE BEST OF THE BUNCH: Mix and match parts of different options as seems best suited to the situation at hand. When weighing options, beware of going with your initial preferences, and try to see your preferred choice in a harsh light. Moreover, separate the option from the person who presented the option to minimize the impact of personalities, relationships, and internal politics on the decision.
  • IMPLEMENT THE OPTION YOU CHOSE: Before and during the process of implementation, consider how your decision can go wrong and guard against these failures. Most importantly, ensure clear accountability and communication around the decision's enactment.
  • EVALUATE THE IMPLEMENTATION PROCESS AND REVISE AS NEEDED: Note that you'll often go back and forth among these steps. Doing so is an inherent part of making a significant decision, and it does not indicate a problem in your process. For example, say you're at the option-generation stage, and you discover relevant new information. You might need to go back and revise the goals and criteria stages.

This is an extract from Gleb Tsipursky's Never Go With Your Gut published by Career Press