Trusting Your Gut: Is It Enough?

Trusting Your Gut: Is It Enough?

Before I get into this week’s topic, you might have read last week’s post on how I feel seven months out from quitting my job. Yet here I am writing about my career experience this week. Why am I doing that?

Just because I quit my job doesn’t mean that I lose all of my experiences - I take them with me.

My hope in writing about my career experiences is to help others learn lessons earlier in their careers than I did. There’s also a part of me that worries I’ll eventually forget everything I’ve learned. Documenting some of the important lessons helps ease my anxiety.

Okay, back to the topic of intuition. Don’t they say you should always trust your gut?

I thought following your intuition, and having good intuition (more importantly), was desired.

Until I got to a certain point in my career…and then trusting my gut began to set me up for failure.

For the first part of my career, I was in sales or management in varying industries and company sizes. I had to think on my feet and make decisions quickly and gracefully, especially in the hospitality industry – you can’t hide from a screw-up as easily when you are face to face with customers.

After moving into the technology industry, I was managing a smaller team and the company was pretty green. This meant that going off instinct was often a necessity. A new tech company doesn’t have a lot of documentation or proven processes; you hit the ground running.

These years of trusting my gut, trying new things, and moving quickly had served me well.

And then I was at a point where my team grew. And the company grew. And I was reporting to Executives.

I was realizing that trusting my gut wasn’t enough – I needed to back-up my gut feelings with data. It’s not that my gut was always wrong; a lot of the time it was right.

But when your team grows, you’re working with people that don’t know you as well as when the team was small. More than your gut feeling is required to convince them a decision is a good one…they want to see proof with facts, numbers, comparisons to other companies who have done a similar thing, etc.

Here are some of the ways I got myself into trouble only trusting my gut early on:

1. Setting Goals Too High

I was overly optimistic when it came to setting personal and team goals, but really good at communicating those goals confidently. That means those Executives I was reporting to would believe me (yay), but I was more likely to fall short of achieving what I thought possible (boo).

It took reporting to someone who was much more strategic and methodical than I was by nature to reign in that optimism some. Thanks, David!

P.S. If you’re a sales rep right now at my old company, your quotas were set using data and research, and a long process with Operations and Finance. And they aren’t too high. I’m going way back in my career with this example, and it’s not just about quota goals.

2. Answering Exec Questions

Senior leadership would ask more questions when a solution was proposed. They are more experienced than rookie leaders and have learned to ask those questions. How did they learn? A senior leader asked them hard questions when they were a rookie leader, too.

The answer to those questions of “why?” “how?” and “when?” needed to have a more solid foundation than, “I just have a good feeling about it.”

When a company reaches a certain size and success level, there is more risk involved. The way to mitigate some of that risk is to have a thorough plan. Following someone else’s gut feeling that isn’t backed up with facts or data adds to the risk.

3. Interviewing Candidates

This one is hard. Hiring managers like to think they can tell when a candidate will be good for the job or not during the interview. And there is an element of intuition that experienced leaders pick up after years of hiring and managing people.

Here’s the thing: some candidates are very good at interviewing and will flop when in the position.

Winging interviews and trusting your gut on candidates you hire is almost guaranteed to earn you higher employee attrition.

What helped me get better at this was a set recruiting process: set questions based on learning the candidate’s past behaviors and experiences, a thorough understanding of what a bad, good, and better answer would be, and which traits + skills were most important for the position. We worked as a leadership team to define the process.

I was not perfect at this when I left my job, and it’s a skill that all people managers should be consciously working on (even those with a lot of experience).

4. Giving Unclear Direction

I have a “it’ll all work out” mentality most of the time. When leading people, that would sometimes mean that I would give unclear direction to my team. Because I was trusting my gut that everything would work out, and I just thought everyone else would think that, too. It left a lot of room for people to figure things out on their own.

What I grew to learn through experience is most people need clear direction on exactly why (and how) you think something will work out in order to trust you.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust your intuition or listen to your gut.

What I’m saying is that trusting your gut will only get you so far in your career.

At some point, you will need to learn from your experiences and base your decisions on data in addition to following your intuition.  

If you find yourself stuck at a certain level in your career, ask yourself, “Am I winging it? Am I floating along on cruise control?”

If the answer is “yes,” I think the problem might be trusting your gut in the absence of data and hard facts.

So is trusting your gut enough? It depends on the situation. But there will come a point in your career where the answer will be “no, it’s not enough.”

And remember, even if you change paths in life, you bring all your experiences along with you.

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