“Well-bred instinct meets reason halfway.”George Santayana

Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, a professor of psychology and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied human decision making for decades, thinks that we are able to develop a “gut instinct” because experience enables us to “chunk” information so that we can store and retrieve it easily. Our brains then “cross-index” this stored information, automatically finding patterns in one area that correspond to patterns in another. For example, a marketing executive might see something in a health-oriented advertising campaign that subconsciously suggests something he should do in a financial promotion.

In other words, your gut instinct tells you more than you can logically know, because it represents much, much more information than you could ever logically process.

That said, most executives will admit that, sometimes, their gut instincts have been wrong. I think that’s what happens if your subconscious mind has been improperly programmed — either because the data (patterns) going in are false or because the conclusions that you keep attaching to them are invalid.

For example, let’s say that every Thursday you put on a blue wool suit and discover that when you put your hand on your office door you get a shock. The pattern you’ve been noticing is valid. Blue suit. Thursday. Shock. But if you conclude that the problem is Thursday or the color blue, you’ll be wrong.

This type of bad programming is common for two reasons. First, we all have a capacity to misinterpret our own experiences. Second, we can easily fall victim to indirect “faulty” experiences from things we read and from things we see on television. These secondary experiences can “feel” very real to the subconscious mind. They can be internalized just as readily, I believe, as primary experiences.

Also, there is the problem of perspective. Take any experience — a ball game, a traffic accident, or a business meeting, for example — and ask four people what took place. Chances are you’ll get four different answers. So how do you educate your gut instinct? How do you develop a powerful business intuition that is much, much better than that of the average leader?

Trust more in your experience than the experience of others. Remember, the experience of others may be distorted by misperception or miscommunication. Your experience, if you are lucid, is genuine.

Trusting in your experience doesn’t mean trusting the conclusions you draw. As explained above, we are all prone to incorrect inductions. Challenge your conclusions and interpretations by talking to others. After an important incident, one that might have suggested a lesson to you, have a conversation with others. How did they see what happened? What lessons did they draw?

You should still give primary weight to your own reactions, but temper them by listening to the interpretations of others. Analyze every business deal you do. Ask yourself:

  • “What went right?”
  •  “What went wrong?”
  • “How could it have been better?”
  • “How could it have been worse?”

Again, ask your colleagues for their opinions. Do they agree with your views on what went right and wrong? If not, why not? Resist the impulse to make yourself “right” in retrospect.

The conclusions you draw from your actual, primary business experiences are the most valuable resources you have. They are collectively the foundation of your future decisions, the bedrock on which your future success will be built.

Make sure those conclusions are valid and your instinct for making the right decisions, in any situation, will inevitably get better.