On Trusting Your Gut  

As a psychologist, I encounter two extremes in flawed judgment rather frequently, both of which can be exacerbated when we are operating under the accrued effects of stress, strain, and fatigue. On the one hand, we can act on impulse in ways that prove to be greatly out of proportion with the real demands or needs of the situation. On the other hand, we can find ourselves paralyzed or at least bogged down in making decisions as a state of mental confusion and fears of making a terrible mistake hold us in their grip. In either case, when this condition prevails for long, we can lose confidence in our instincts and intuitive sense. Even if we are in principle free to act, we don’t feel emotionally free or competent. 

There are times when I encourage my clients to trust their gut. What I usually mean to endorse when offering this advice is that they be more attentive to what they are experiencing. Are they feeling an aversion or an attraction? Is something compelling their belief, giving them confidence, or is that “something I know not what” engendering uncertainty or confusion? What I’m suggesting is that they give these feelings or impressions credence as data worth considering. So, the first meaning of “trusting your gut,” from my point of view, is to take these intuitive data of experience seriously. And when we do so, what else happens? We pause. For when we take the data of experience seriously it means we are not merely accepting them; rather, it’s that we’re considering them, giving them a fair hearing.    

Why does our intuition merit this attention and credence? First, because intuition is an immediate way of knowing that bypasses formal inferential processes and discursive reasoning. Intuition grasp a truth immediately. It may not be flawless. Indeed, we may later find that our intuitive grasp of something was based upon prevailing circumstances of the moment. Its virtue is that it’s fast and situated, qualities that limit its universality as truth and its practical relevance. But, if we’re careful to suspend judgment and action, recognizing that our intuitions are situated (in a specific context of time, place, perspective, and circumstances), we have good reason to welcome them as a valuable source of guidance in practical matters, matters requiring considered judgment and decision making.  

When we follow this approach to considering our intuitive experience, I believe we become wiser and less dogmatic. We stimulate a more mindful examination of a situation because being mindful concerns awareness of what is really present to our awareness and senses. Becoming skilled in the practice of invoking this brief reflective pause, we overcome the extremes in judgment. This pause asserts a critical function that averts a rush to judgment, but also a paralysis of confusion. In that respect, to trust our gut is to trust and verify the data of intuitive experience.

People, Planet, & Profit – The Triple Bottom Line

Practical reflections on global warming and the U.S. Climate Assessment

If you’re a climate change denier or you have a strong aversion to facing inconvenient truths, you may be tempted to stop reading soon. But please try to hang in there, stay with me. Because my message is truly optimistic and empowering. I can’t help myself. Seventy years of living has given me more evidence than I ever really needed to believe that we are capable of great acts of redemption.  

The Current Epoch

It’s not so long ago, the mid 90’s, that leading business minds operationalized the idea of sustainable business practices. We were doing well economically and perhaps not as threatened by external forces of instability as we are today. Fear and falsehood were not used as extensively to shape public opinion and policy. Rational thought and action seem to thrive best when we feel safe and secure. 

Don’t take my word for it, this principle of how positive mood and mental attitude “broaden and build” intelligent capacities is well established in the field and the laboratory. We’ve seen it, how brain function and neural networks change to potentiate greater creative thinking and problem solving. Also, we’ve seen how negativity – states of fear, anxiety, hopelessness – constrict our mind. 

So, consider how ironic it is that we’ve become a slave to the product of own genius. We act as though there is no further form for our technical, economic, and policy infrastructures to take. But we made the situation we are in, largely through experimental action and less-than-perfect knowledge of the consequences. That takes boldness, creativity, innovation, courage. Have we lost it?  

The Change We Need

It is easier to face those things we’d rather avoid or deny when we have reason to believe a solution can be found and that we can find it. It’s easier when we know that we’re in it together, that no one will be left behind. It’s easier when there are rules in place that create a level playing field, that all players will be treated fairly and those who are at greatest risk will be given special attention. 

And when the change we need is historic or structural or transformational – you choose the descriptor – we must approach it with care as well as justice. An ethic of care prompts us to listen to one another, to empathize, not just to be “nice” but to understand the fears and concerns that must be allayed for trust and rationality to prevail. With justice, we balance the scales based on understanding. 

There are public goods that are also common goods, public interests that are also common interests. If we are to have thriving economic markets and opportunities for creative-productive expression, there are basic capabilities that must be available to all. They include dignity, education, health, liberty, and environmental resources. Self-interest alone is not enough. Adam Smith knew this. 

Of course, there’ll be differences in wealth and education, and in social status and political philosophy. We’ll quarrel vigorously over where self-interest must yield to common-interest. But we must, as we seek to build the next great epoch of human history, recognize that the well-being of the whole cannot be neglected if we hope to survive and thrive for generations to come. 

Reasonableness & Heart

I’ve always found that reasonableness is quite distinct from the narrow notion of rationality as a cold, hard calculus. Reasonableness includes qualities of equanimity that moderate the pace and progress of judgment. It makes room for considering reasons of the heart as well as the more conceptual kinds of reasons that derive from fact-finding, logical analysis, and general principles. 

Reasonableness expresses the whole of our intelligent capacities and our moral sensibilities. So, one conclusion that I draw from considering our current state of affairs is that we will need to rely even more on the maturity of mind called reasonableness than upon any particular technical cleverness if we are to redeem ourselves at this critical point in time.  

Our current ways are not sustainable. We’re more stubbornly divided than we’ve been for some time. The best solutions for our environmental crisis require that we see one another as fellow citizens rather than rivals. Anger and resentment usually hide feelings of fear and vulnerability We cannot leave anyone behind. All must know and trust that our common interest include them. 

We can do this. But we each must begin recognizing our responsibility to be there for each other. Whether it’s in our commercial dealings or in our internal collaborations on a work team. We must get in the habit of asking after what’s good for us, for all of us. The other thing about mood and emotion I did not mention: It’s contagious!




And How Is That Working For You?

“When we are unhappy with how things are turning out, we must change our behavior, for the way things are turning out is a result of the behaviors we are currently using.”

 It’s a simple assertion, one that is much simpler said than done. Why? Because we grasp hold of habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and doing with all the tenacity of a true believer. Even when these habits leave us falling short of what we want repeatedly and failing in areas of life that we deeply care about succeeding in, we cannot let go of them … at least that’s the way it seems. 

What’s the solution? It involves relational learning, which means learning in a relationship with another person. It’s a relationship within which we are awakened to our habits, presented with opportunities to make informed choices, and learn how to act on them. Now, you might ask, “Is that therapy or is that coaching?” That’s for another day. In either case it’s adaptive development. 

Not Another Theory of Change!

No, it’s a theory of learning, which is usually the most adaptive response to change, especially when the change concerns disappointing results. Learning concerns knowledge of (self, others, situation) and knowledge about (matters of fact methods, procedures), as well as skills to act from that knowledge. That is to say, what we’re talking about is the acquisition of accurate and useful knowledge, and relevant and effective skills. They prove to be accurate and effective when put to use in practice - they work! 

That sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it? But when we’re stuck, and when we’ve tried and tried to solve our problems, to figure things out, to learn, all without success, it does not look or feel very neat and tidy. We’re frustrated, discouraged, and our attitude and energy move in the negative direction. We know at some level it’s not because we’re stupid, but we can’t help feeling less able and smart. 

The thing we need to remember – phrased a bit differently than our opening quotation – is that what we have learned is not working. And it’s not simply not working, it is interfering with our ability to learn new ways of functioning. That’s a good definition of “self-limiting.” Therefore, the first thing we must do is to question and unlearn the stuff – thoughts, feelings, patterns of action – that are problematic. And keep in mind, that the learning we seek is situation specific. 

Our habits became automatic ways of navigating our social and practical environment because they worked. But what was enough there and then is obviously not the right approach here and now. So, where do we begin this learning process? We begin with a concrete description of a current situation that is not working. The situation that can be described as a “slice of time.” 

Situation Analysis

Tom is having trouble getting things done in his new role as team leader. Here’s the way he describes a specific example: We all arrive in a meeting room for a project review. I try to call the meeting to order and get things going, but others can’t stop their conversations. So, I put my foot down. But then everyone goes quiet and I can’t get people to be really engaged in figuring out the problems we need to solve.     

I asked Tom, “How did you interpret this situation as it played out?” His response was kind of rambling: I was pissed off, frustrated. They know me, and they know this is important work, so why don’t they give me a break. I would never have taken this job (promotion) to lead this group if I knew they were going to pull this kind of “stuff” (expletive deleted)! 

“So,” I asked, “what did you do?” He responded: It was like pulling teeth, but I just went directly to them with questions about their ideas and recommendations. We came out with something that was okay, but it was much more difficult than it needed to be. Afterward, I asked one of the people, Hallie, “What that was all about?” She said that they got carried away getting caught up on their holiday experiences, and then felt I was really in a bad mood.   

“So, Tom, did you get what you wanted?” His face flushed with frustration: Yes and no. That’s not the kind of leader I want to be. And we may have done okay with the work, but I don’t think we’ll do our best work that way. And I don’t like being seen in a negative light, you know, the bad mood thing.

Take Two 

I heard him, what he voiced and the feelings that were not spoken. “Well, how about if we go through this situation again and try to notice how it might work out differently the next time?” No surprise, Tom was all in. And as we processed the situation, we considered different ways we might interpret their behavior, and different actions he might have taken to get what he wanted from the meeting. 

We did this in the context of a trusting relationship. I even shared my personal sense of the “serious edge” that he may at times signal with his facial expressions. We discussed how that might arise from his intense worries about “getting it right” and “proving himself.” He discovered that if we could talk about these matters openly, that he could probably express his feeling more openly with his team too. 

The role is new. He wants to succeed. He wants to work together with the team as they always have, with some playful back-and-forth, but also with and real sense of pride in getting the job done. And it’s different figuring out how to do that as a leader. That’s what he did. They talked about it. He became less self-conscious about playing his role, calling the meeting to order without getting “cranky.”  

Situation Analysis: Take Two

In a world that thrives on action and problem solving, timeliness is prized. Adages like “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” normalize an urgency to act with approximate accuracy and good-enough effectiveness. But what happens our situation analyses are rushed, episodic, and involve few if any "second takes?"

When a group of “cooler heads” prevail, their fact-based, analysis of problem situations or opportunities often succeed. Sound methods and practices for such analysis have been developed and are taught in business schools. Most rely on data gathering, quantitative analysis, and some sort of deliberation, scenario planning, and practical judgment.

Still, more than 50% of new businesses fail within two years, 40-60% of new hires depart the hiring company within 18 months, and the majority of process improvement initiatives and M&A investments fail to achieve their aims. So, our methods are not perfect, and anything that can improve their success deserves our attention, even if it stems from the “soft” science of psychology.

Situation Analysis & Particularity

In business, situation analysis is an established means of guiding judgment on strategic action and on vital tactical decisions. Here’s one definition of situation analysis:

The systematic collection and study of past and present data to identify trends, forces, and conditions with the potential to influence the performance of the business and the choice of appropriate strategies. The situation analysis is the foundation of the strategic planning process. The situation analysis includes an examination of both the internal factors (to identify strengths and weaknesses) and external factors (to identify opportunities and threats). It is often referred to by the acronym SWOT. (American Marketing Association)

What goes less noticed in business methods is the role of interpretation. Facts and data don’t really explain themselves. And models and theories intended for explaining things in general don't really explain this or that situation in particular. Particularity, after all, refers to unique, case-specific, qualities of an individual person, situation, or experience.

And it is interpretation that we rely on when seeking to understand the unique features and causal influences that explain something we wish to understand with particularity. In the field of action, we shape our strategy to this particularity. Particularity concerns the minute details “out there” that we might observe with a second “take.” It also consists in seeing them as other stakeholders see them.

We are among the stakeholders, aren’t we? So, particularity implies a meta-awareness of our own and others’ perceptions, thought, feelings, strivings, practical interests – these are the lenses through which we see the particulars that differentiate our situation. We do so by suspending judgment, loosening the grip of urgent drives and desires. We then see the situation as it really is, not as some mere objectivity, but as a multi-faceted relatum.

Particularity concerns the way a situation is given to us in experience, but it includes the other ways it might be given to us too. Thus, seeking an accurate and sufficient grasp of particulars in a specific situation involves a special rigor in seeing things. It gives us better insight into how what is seen may be relevant to the motivations, aspirations, and purposes of the stakeholders involved.

Eliciting Particularity

First, we must summarize the situation as we observe it to be. Let’s take an example of problematic change: The VP of Marketing for ABC Company informs our agency by email to halt all service delivery on a multi-media promotional initiative. The account executive, Eric, shares the news with his boss, and the request for information begins, “We can’t lose this business!”

That’s what happened. Is there more to the story? Probably, but Eric is having difficulty getting further information. So, how does he interpret the situation? The VP is playing it close to the vest, which is not characteristic of her. Eric is accountable for this as Q4 revenue: “My superiors don’t like bad news.” Thus, Eric asks the client if there’s anything he can do to keep the business - “issues we can resolve?”

The client says “no,” there’s no way it can be changed. After informing his boss, Eric is called into a meeting with senior management. He was anxious. Some of them were too. The COO broke the silence, “Look, this is an anchor client. We need to retain the revenue, but, even more, we need to retain the client. So, let’s see if we can sort this out.” His tone was calm.

He continued, “Tell me more about the situation, Eric.” This was enough to calm Eric a bit. His COO signaled to the group a norm of composure and care. Eric said that the client had gone quiet the past few weeks while Eric was spending his time trying to close 4th quarter sales. Then this news broke. They soon concluded that something had gone awry, but further pressuring Eric was not the answer.

They wanted was to retain the client, but their actions had served to neglect communications with the client. Historically, their business grew with this client as the trust and intimacy of the relationship had grown. What kept them in the inner circle of service providers was their direct relevance to the client’s priorities. These kinds of interpretations produced working hypotheses and next steps.

Take Two

Actions and strategies, including those for account management, emerge from a particularistic kind of situation analysis and planning. An essential fact about particulars is that they change. External factors change and affect factual particulars, and internal factors change that affect perceptions. We cannot know how these factors change and influence our client unless we “travel” with them.

That’s the true mark of intimacy. We know the clients with whom we have intimacy in their particularity as a company, as managers, and as people trying to thrive. A good situation analysis is a snapshot based on take-two perceptions and interpretations of the particulars that inform adaptive change for our clients and that inform our strategies and practices for serving them.

Mature Mind & Positive Influence

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In those moments when we feel least effective and most frustrated, and especially when this experience becomes chronic, we’re aware of how it steals our capacity to get things done. Something has happened and continues to happen in our mind. It's not working as well as we’d like it to. We’re exhausted, perhaps irritable or indifferent, but certainly not positively charged. Our thinking is dulled, our judgment is compromised, our imagination and repertoire of problem-solving skills seem to have left us. And it’s not just us; we seem unable to connect and influence others in any positive way. This is not what we want. We’re stuck. We want change. And change can happen. That’s what I discuss in my latest whitepaper.