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When your gut no longer cuts it

I’ve relied on my gut for years. It hasn’t always helped me make the right decision. But, it has always helped me to make the best possible decision based on my current knowledge and experience. And generally, it hasn’t led me too far astray. I know I’m not the only one who relies on intuition, that mix of knowledge, experience, prediction, and risk, that hopefully leads us to growth, change, and better things for those we serve.

But what do we do when our gut no longer cuts it? What do we do when our experience, knowledge, predictive abilities, and risk-taking reflection don’t give us what we need to make informed decisions? In the past, we might wonder, “Well, when exactly would you even encounter a situation like this?”

Well, we’re living it now.

Over the last few months, as schools have made preparations to open under a number of different circumstances, we’ve all questioned what the “right decision” is. And, we’ve all realized that in response to the pandemic, there actually isn’t a “right” decision (at least by the past metrics we used). No matter what we choose to do, the outcomes, to put it bluntly, still have the potential to suck. And badly.

Leading when we can rely on our gut isn’t easy. And when we can’t rely on it? It’s basically a step above a coin flip. 

So, what can we do when our gut no longer cuts it? Here are three ways we can lean towards strong decision-making, even when intuition can’t be counted on.

Become comfortable with “I don’t know.” One of the biggest lessons relearned for me this year was to grow my comfort with simply saying “I don’t know.” This was a difficult lesson learned years ago as a teacher, and I surprised myself in March and April with the fact that I needed to learn this lesson again. Saying “I don’t know” (and meaning it sincerely) has helped me to strengthen relationships in ways I hadn’t thought possible. I wondered a bit about why that was, and I’m convinced it is because of the authenticity and level of comfort with oneself that saying it requires. Somewhat paradoxically, I’ve also found that saying it can actually make others feel more comfortable than they were before. Since we are all in this together, and no one really knows what is going on, it recognizes that decisions won’t be as well informed as they were before, and honestly, that is the best that we can do.

Welcome dissenting voices. Some of history’s best leaders have made it a practice to surround themselves with those who have vastly different perspectives and agendas. This process of putting additional speed bumps in front of one’s own car can sometimes seem counter-intuitive. Yet, it is never more apparent why this practice is a necessity then during a time when our gut can’t be relied on. Since our past experiences don’t hold the answer, nothing is better than seeking counsel from those who see things differently. We should always welcome varied perspective. We should welcome it even more when our own Magic 8 Ball continually comes up, “Reply hazy, try again.”

Let trust be your guide. One of the hardest relationship foundations to build, and also one of the easiest to lose, trust has to be the centerpiece of all decision-making processes. When our gut fails, and we are deciding without intuition, if we’ve built up a bank of trust, then regardless of how our decision turns out, we will all likely end up okay. The challenge comes when we haven’t made significant trust deposits in the bank, or we’ve withdrawn too much. In those cases, our lack of effective decision-making will be a community and culture divider, making it that much harder for us to move forward. To make sure we always have a bank of trust to rely on, we need to make sure we are authentic at all times, exhibit true and deep caring for others, and show we can be both reliable and predictable.

In the best case scenarios, our intuition serves as a guide to help us carry forward in making effective decisions. But not being able to rely on our gut isn’t the worst thing. By considering these three strategies (and others), we can give our gut a break, and still end up better off than we might have been otherwise.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.

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