by Meridith Levinson

How to Harness Instinct and Intuition to Make Better Business and Career Decisions

Apr 07, 20097 mins
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Most IT professionals rely too much on external data to make business and career decisions. Even when a "gut feeling" warns of a bad decision, they often ignore their instincts. In this Q&A, a psychotherapist explains how listening to your gut can help you make better decisions in all areas of your life.

When CIOs discuss the worst candidates they’ve ever hired for jobs, as they often do in’s Hiring Manager Interviews series, their hiring mistakes almost always come down to this: I didn’t trust my gut. The CIO knows deep down that the candidate isn’t right for the position or the IT organization, ignores his instincts and hires the individual anyway. The hire ends up being a waste of time and money, confirming the CIO’s instinct on some level that it wouldnt work out.

It is through this school of hard knocks that managers learn to trust their guts when it comes to hiring and other business and career decisions.

For more stories on decision-making, see:

How to Make Better Decisions

Conquering Decision-Making

Making Tough Decisions in a Down Economy

Tapping into that visceral reservoir known as intuition can be particularly difficult for IT professionals, whose analytical, logical minds are wired to rely on data to make decisions. But learning to harness one’s instincts and intuition helps individuals make better decisions in all areas of their lives, personal and professional, says Karol Ward, a psychotherapist and author of Find Your Inner Voice: Using Instinct and Intuition Through the Body-Mind Connection (Career Press 2009.)

“When people allow instinct and intuition to be part of their decision-making process, they experience less regret and feel less conflicted when they make important decisions,” says Ward.

Ward has observed first-hand the relief her therapy patients have experienced after listening to their instincts while in the throes of agonizing personal decisions.

“When people were sitting across from me, struggling with a decision, I could tell the moment they got clarity on it,” she says. “Their energy would change. Their faces would light up. Their shoulders would relax. …There’s a definite physical shift that arises when people arrive at a decision that’s right for them. When people make that body and mind connection, they have a better and more accurate way of making decisions.”

Before you dismiss this mind-body talk as new-age mumbo-jumbo, know that there is science behind it. Ward says the stomach is laden with nerve endings, and neurological pathways connect the brain and the gut. Your gut feelings are instincts that you haven’t yet articulated in your mind.

Ward spoke with about the reasons people discount their instincts and intuition and explained how to instead effectively tap into them. She also explained how to evaluate whether your sinking suspicion that you’re going to get laid off is real or a figment of your imagination.

CIO: Are you suggesting that people pay more attention to their instincts and intuition than what their minds tell them?

Karol Ward: I’m a big fan of the brain. I’m just about getting it in balance so our body weighs in on decisions more than it usually does. We tend to be very mind-heavy and logical, but sometimes our logic is skewed because we’ve learned things without thought. For instance, we’ve learned that certain factors make a good hire, yet when we don’t feel right about that person sitting in front of us with that wonderful résumé, we override that feeling. We hire the person and end up regretting it.

Why do people ignore their gut feelings?

In some ways, we’re taught or socialized not to trust our instincts. For example, when you were a kid and your Uncle Joe came to visit, you may not have wanted him to hug you, but your parents insisted that you hug him. Their insistence reinforced a message that your feeling of unease was incorrect and that you should do things that are socially acceptable. It’s early conditioning about how to behave. We adopt someone else’s belief as to what’s right and wrong, as opposed to us being able to trust our own instincts.

The 24 hour news cycle doesn’t help, either. It constantly bombards us with information. The more we get bombarded, the more we get distracted and the more we override our ability to perceive those [physical] signals that would help us make better decisions in life.

Are women more instinctive than men?

No. Men have very strong instinctive feelings. A lot of business leaders are men, and they often talk about going with their gut.

Doesn’t listening to our instincts and intuition make decision-making more difficult? After all, what our gut tells us may be completely different from what we discern from external data and stimuli.

Sometimes we perceive things on a cellular, sensory level first before these perceptions hit our consciousness. That’s what confuses us: We pick up something that feels uncomfortable or off, but it hasn’t hit our consciousness yet, so we tend to dismiss it.

When you get caught in that battle of ‘It looks right but feels wrong,’ pay attention to why the situation or decision feels wrong. Give it time instead of just dismissing it. A gut feeling is your body signaling to you that you need to listen to it. Use that signal to gather more information and satisfy any lingering questions in your mind. When you have no more questions, you’ll feel calm and satisfied.

How can analytical people tap into their instincts and the messages their bodies send to them?

If you’ve been in an office all day staring at screen, before you leave, take a few moments to ask yourself how your body feels. Does it feel tense? What would help you relax?

What if the answer to that question is, “I need a drink.”

What’s underneath that? What will the drink produce? Relaxation. People who work heavily in the mind need a way to drop down into the body. I recommend some form of physical activity, whether it’s T’ai Chi or running on a treadmill. Just don’t do it in front of a TV. The mind needs to decompress and get a break from visual stimulation.

A lot of workers are concerned about losing their jobs right now. Having an accurate sense of their likelihood of getting laid off can make all the difference in their lives. How can people tap into their instincts to get a handle on their job security?

Shut off all distractions and ask yourself, If my nervous stomach could talk, what would it be telling me about what I’m feeling? If the answer is, I feel like I’m going to get fired, ask yourself what that feeling is based on. Is it because the vibe in the office feels different?

Follow up on that feeling to the best of your ability. If you talk to your supervisor and he or she says, ‘No, everything is fine,’ but you’re still worried, ask yourself if your worry stems from your own insecurity or from concrete signals you’re getting in the office.

How can people determine whether their gut feeling is a result of their own insecurity?

Ask yourself, is this a new feeling or a familiar feeling? Is this how I respond to everything? Is your usual feeling one of insecurity, or has this feeling of insecurity come from out of the blue? If it showed up out of the blue, give it some weight. Follow up on it. See if it goes away or increases.

If the feeling you’re going to lose your job doesn’t go away, take actions to prepare for the worst. Start networking and make sure you’re o.k. financially. Also consider whether you’d be relieved if you were let go: What does that tell you?

If you usually react with anxiety or insecurity, you need to find a way to reduce your nervousness and prepare for your self-care. Use these hunches to take care of yourself in the best way possible.