Leadership Update is a free electronic monthly newsletter. In it, you’ll find strategies for helping you realize your full professional potential.
- Quotable: The Pundits Speak
- Gut Instincts: Listening to Your Intuition
- Fire Drill: Terminating Difficult Employees
- Readers’ Forum: Your Observations
- Subscription Information
QUOTABLE: THE PUNDITS SPEAK
“Thought is action in rehearsal.'” – Sigmund Freud
“Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now.” – Stephen Wright
Gut Instincts: Listening to Your Intuition
If you’re like many leaders, you may do some of your best business thinking when you’re not thinking about business. Perhaps the answer to a tricky problem occurs to you while you’re taking a shower in the morning. Or a choice that’s eluded you while concentrating on it at your desk suddenly becomes clear while you’re on the golf course. And once you arrive at a solution, you tend to trust it, even if it’s hard to describe exactly how you arrived at the decision.
It’s called a “gut instinct,” and an article in the February Harvard Business Review attempted to uncover what exactly is at work in our minds when we make decisions not based on a logical cost-benefit analysis, but on a more subtle process described by words like “intuition” and “hunch”.
You might be surprised to learn that executives routinely rely on their intuition to solve difficult problems when lists of pros and cons don’t seem to work, according to the article. In fact, it appears that the higher up someone is on the corporate ladder, the more they’ll need to rely on their intuition to make critical decisions. Why? Because by the time most business proposals have been handed up to the ultimate corporate decision maker, very smart people have usually prepared the data and analyzed the different possible outcomes already. That means that the executive-level decision maker has to go beyond the information being presented to decide intuitively which choice to make.
So what exactly is the intuitive process that allows business leaders to make major decisions? It seems to be fueled by two related phenomenon. First, your mind is capable of receiving and processing information outside your conscious awareness. For example, information that protects you from physical harm is usually transmitted directly to the parts of the brain that control motor activity. That’s why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove before seeming to consciously realize that you touched the burner. Also, studies have shown that data presented to subjects below the threshold of conscious awareness has the ability to affect future choices the subject makes. That means that you have absorbed information about your business that you did not necessarily intend to learn. And that data, along with all of your conscious thoughts, becomes available to you for decision-making purposes.
Second, data that you collect both consciously and unconsciously can be processed quickly and in a seeming endless number of ways by the brain. While this process is not completely understood, it is clear that when decision-makers are presented with data, the brain sets to work trying to identify patterns in the huge number of discrete memories and facts that reside in your head. An example of this is when a football quarterback looks across a crowded field but is able to identify a receiver who’s about to break open and pass the ball at precisely the right time. In business decisions, when this process yields a result, you have the “a-ha” experience – your conscious recognition of that sub-conscious connection.
Gut instincts, then, are the product of all of the experiences that reside in your mind, and the connections you’re capable of making among those experiences from which patterns – and the answers to many questions – emerge.
So should you trust your instincts or not? Before answering that, it’s important to consider some potential decision-making pitfalls, pointed out in the article. First, some people will take unnecessary risks to recover a loss, also known as the gambler’s syndrome. Second, we may think we see patterns where none actually exist. Also, we have a tendency to recall when we didn’t trust our instincts but should have (e.g., “I knew I should have bought that building in 1968 for $1,000 … it’s worth $1,000,000 now.”), forgetting when we were lucky to have disregarded our gut instinct. Finally, there’s the insidious “self-fulfilling prophecy,” compelling us to make sure that someone we backed for a promotion actually succeeds, justifying our original decision and blurring whether or not the choice was in fact a good one.
- To protect yourself against making unwise decisions, consider these important steps:
- Check to confirm if your judgments are correct. Follow up on your decisions and the results in all of the areas they concerned.
- Make sure you examine the bad decisions as well as the good ones.
- Look at the entire decision-making process, not just the final choice.
- Try to identify the moods, emotions and drives that you’re experiencing during the decision making process.
- Consult with trusted friends or associates during the decision-making process, particularly when you’re uneasy about a decision.
Even if you employ these checks, there are some people who gravitate to fact-based decisions rather than relying on intuition. If you’re the databased type, you may rarely trust your gut, or you may view gut feelings as irrelevant data in the decision making process. It’s probably best to stay with your preferred method of decision-making.
Your decision making style is something that can be easily assessed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Please call me at 610/642-3040 to learn about how information from the Myers-Briggs can help you identify your preferences and make even better business decisions.
Fire Drill: Terminating Difficult Employees
Firing an employee is one of the most difficult tasks that leaders face. And the potential problems created by terminations are substantial, from high turnover costs to lengthy vacancies to lawsuits filed by disgruntled ex-employees and morale problems among the remaining staff.
Before you reach the point of having to fire an employee, make sure you’ve assessed why they are not meeting your expectations. Be aware of the employment laws that apply to your business in your state. And consult with your attorney to make sure you’ve documented and addressed your concerns appropriately.
If you feel you have no other choice than terminating the staff member, consider these points:
1. Be prepared. Make sure you’ve reviewed the termination process with an attorney well versed in employment law. Be clear with the employee about the reasons for the termination. Rehearse what you’re going to say. Anticipate questions the person may have and practice your answers. The better prepared you are, the easier the process will be for both of you. You will also want to prepare for announcing the termination to your staff. This should be handled smoothly, as the rest of the employees will assume that this is how their termination will eventually be announced.
2. Be compassionate. Even if you’re furious at the person you’re firing, the termination meeting should be conducted calmly and professionally. Being fired may make the employee feel rejected, worthless, embarrassed and guilty. There’s no need to make it worse than it already is. Also, employees may be more likely to sue you if they’re angry at the way they were treated in the termination meeting.
3. Be clear. If you did a good job of providing the employee with feedback all along, the firing should come as no surprise, but that doesn’t mean that they will be thinking clearly during the termination meeting. Don’t assume the person knows exactly why they’re being fired: review the reasons so there’s no confusion.
4. Be future-oriented. Employees who are being fired, even when they know it’s coming, often try to deal with hurt feelings by asking many questions about various issues that led up to the termination. Similar to getting over a failed relationship, moving on is part of the process that will help them feel better. To orient the person toward the future, offer post-termination employment counseling, help with a resume or reference letter, or other services that will help the terminated employee transition to his or her next job.
5. Be careful. If you’re concerned about documenting what was said in the meeting, conduct termination meetings with a witness, such as someone else in a leadership or human resources position in your firm. If you’re concerned that the employee has the potential for becoming angry or violent, contact your local police or a private security consultant for suggestions on handling the meeting.
No matter how much you prepare and feel justified for firing an employee who’s not meeting your expectations, terminating someone typically has emotional consequences for the leader, as well as the employee. Contact me for advice about handling those and other termination issues.
READERS’ FORUM: YOUR OBSERVATIONS
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Copyright 2001-2004 by Dr. David A. Weiman. All rights reserved.