What is Your Instinct Telling You?

I wanted to believe Lance Armstrong so badly, and to believe that his amazing accomplishments on the bike were the result of disciplined training, hard work and some genetic good luck. Like most people, I love an overcome-all-odds success story, and especially one that involves one of my favorite sports – cycling – and a hometown boy. But early in Lance’s rise, around his 3rd Tour de France win, a little voice in my head started nagging at me and warning me not to buy in to the heroic story.

I know this voice well. It speaks to me often. And I have learned to listen to what it says.

It is the same voice that joined me in a series of intense vendor negotiations for an HR technology project early in the dotcom days, warning that the vendor might be overstating the capabilities of their software. It is the same voice that tells me not to send my kids to school on mornings when they seem a bit “off” because I’ll probably be picking them up from the nurse’s office before lunch. And it is the same voice that leads me to ask more questions than I should about a project’s progress in order to really understand whether it is progressing as planned.

I call this voice my Instinct, but not in the strict, scientific definition of an inherited, genetically-wire trait (think birds jumping out of the nest when they are ready to fly). No, I am talking about that “I feel it in my gut” sense that as business leaders we are inclined to dismiss when we have a tough decision to make – such as whether or not to believe Lance Armstrong – because it is neither rational nor objective. When the story of Lance’s confession emerged, and I realized that my Instinct voice was right again in its assessment of him, I spent some time thinking about the factors that have led me to trust Instinct when I make decisions.

  • My Instinct voice has rarely been wrong. In fact, I can only think of one time it assessed a situation wrong and told me I COULD make a tough jump on my mountain bike safely (I ended up with a broken rib, and to this day think my voice was trying to talk to my 23-year-old self). My inner voice has such a strong track record that I would be remiss not to trust it. If a person on my team had a 99.9% success rate, I would definitely be listening to everything they had to say.
  • My Instinct voice echoes what people I trust and respect say. OK, so maybe my voice is heavily influenced by the people I associate with, but when it starts to sound like a former boss who always talked straight with me, or my mother, or one of my trusted colleagues, I know it is on to something. When Lance started to deny doping, I began listening carefully to people I know who are connected to cycling and what they were hearing from their racing friends. It reached a point where it was hard to find anyone in my next work of trusted friends-of-friends who believed Lance’s denials. If the people whose opinions I respected were not willing to extend trust, I had no reason to either, and my voice knew that.
  • My Instinct voice is incredibly analytical and sends up red flags when facts and circumstanced don’t add up. For example, as questioning about Lance’s performance increased over the years, and as his denials became more vicious, a disconnect emerged. In short, the level of questioning did not warrant the repeated, vehement response of threats, personal attacks and lawsuits. More than once my voice flagged Lance’s responses and attitude by saying “This behavior doesn’t make sense” or asking “What is really going on here?”

As business leaders and executives, making decisions can be one of the most complex and challenging parts of the job. Sometimes you don’t have all the information you need. Sometimes there is not a clear “best action” to take. Sometimes personalities, relationships and politics complicate a situation. When faced with a tough decision to make, continue to do what works for you today: gather all the necessary facts, weigh the pros and cons, get input from key stakeholders, and assess the impacts of all your options. But don’t discount what Instinct may be telling you, regardless of how scary, unprofessional, or against-the-grain it may sound to say “My gut is telling me…”. Chance are your Instinct is not really instinct at all, but more of a calculated, formulated response you have cultivated over many years of experience.

And as for you, Lance (if you are reading this), it would be great if my Instinct voice could tell me someday in the future that I can believe what you say, but something tells me that is not going to happen.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at hnelson@www.people-results.com or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.