The art of decision making: Going with your gut or?

My first internship opportunity was with the UNECA Governance and Public Administration Division (GPAD). When my cell rang one Friday afternoon, and I saw the dialler was my contact from GPAD I was beyond thrilled. Ever since I could remember I had wanted to work for the UN, to drive in those blue and white cars and help alleviate suffering. That was what the UN symbolized- Hope. And I had desperately wanted to be part of that.

So I picked up the call, and as the caller went on speaking to me, I tried to contain my excitement and maintain my professional tone. I was offered the internship. So then I was asked, do you accept the offer? I paused. I had a gust instinct that something was not right here.

Most of us experience this sense of knowing things before we actually come to know it. It is rather difficult to explain how we know, but we know. We get a quirky urge, a funny tickle, and a sudden and inexplicable certainty that something is up. This is our ‘gut’ communicating to us.

David G. Myers, author of ‘Intuition: Its Powers and Perils’ [2004] defines ‘gut instinct’ as mental shortcuts used to make snap judgements based on experience and environment. David Myers, explains that the intuitive right brain is almost always “reading” your surroundings, even when your conscious left brain is otherwise engaged. The body can register this information while the conscious mind remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense that we would have a mechanism whereby we unconsciously perceive and respond to stimuli in our environment.

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of ‘How We Decide’ [2009], people can “feel” approaching events specifically because of our dopamine neurons. The jitters of dopamine help keep track of reality, alerting us to those subtle patterns that we can’t consciously detect.

So it is quite evident that we have our own innate wisdom. To go with our gut instinct, we start out by observing the physical sensations and re-connect with our body. Everyone one is different, and have different ways of tuning in with their inner voice. I for example feel it in my gut area, others might feel it around their throat, shoulders, heart or head. These feelings are associated with a “yes” or a “no”. It may seem difficult to trust these feelings, especially if your conscious mind is telling you “no” and your gut is telling you “yes”.

My gut was telling me “no”, that this opportunity was not the right decision for me. But my conscious mind was telling me “yes”. I had a great opportunity laid out for me, to be an intern with a highly reputable multinational organization. I had the opportunity to learn from experts and change makers. I was at a cross roads. What do I trust, how do I decide?

Trusting and listening to our gust instinct therefore requires plenty of practice. We must practice the art of making decisions based on our gut, practice re-connecting with our body and constantly check in with our self before and after we make decisions. With time, we will realise that the more we listen to our body and act on it, the easier it gets. We learn to act in spite of any “fear” presented because we build on a momentum of trust.

I was scared and felt nervous at this point. The fear of maybe not getting the same opportunity with the UN, the fear of being unemployed and so forth enslaved me. With those fears, I had to trust myself and go with my gut.

But, is going with our gut the right way to go? Relaying on our ‘gut instincts’ may rightly prevent us from harm, danger and pitfalls, but can also get us into trouble.  According to Mary Ellen O’Toole, co- author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray us- the term “gut instinct” is an “unclear entity”.  Everyone is different. Some people have better instincts than others, and there is no way to measure the effectiveness of our instincts or identify ways to improve them.  Trusting something as vague as our gut instincts doesn’t work, and it creates the idea that decision-making is some innate ability. Rather, it’s a skill and process argues O’Toole.

O’Toole therefore suggests a method of making SMART decisions (Sound Method of Assessing and Recognizing Trouble).  This is an analytical process. To make SMART decisions we must first identify if our decision will have long-term effects for both our self and others. Next step is information seeking.

So a SMART decision for me would be to identify what opportunities would be available for me had I taken this internship. Would the division allow me to grow professionally, would my supervisor mentor and coach me and build on my competencies? Would I be offered a permanent job afterwards? Would I be able to work both individually and as a team? Would I be part of the decision making and planning processes? After reading up on the GPAD division and gathering all my data, my answer should have been “yes”. But I went with my gut. And I am happy I did because a few weeks later I heard that the division had been dissolved and the whole UNECA had restructured.

So when making decisions, some believe our gut tells us all we need to know whereas others believe we must make careful analysis. This is not a clear cut topic and even experts disagree on this issue. I believe there is a time and a place for both modes of operation and neither is fool proof for every person every time. We need to strike the right balance between gut instinct and rational thinking. Once we notice an intuitive feeling, we need to explore that feeling, get data to back up our feelings and choose how best to act and proceed.

Now looking back at my decision, I am happy I followed my gut and decided to turn down the internship. But I should also be mindful that my gut was not all I listened to. The GPAD division was a large and bureaucratic division and my rational mind was cognizant to the fact that my supervisors would be way too busy to actively teach me anything meaningful. Moreover, the UNECA had a policy that interns must leave the organization for a minimum of 6 month period before being able to work as a full time employee. This meant that I was not even guaranteed a position after my internship.