Gut Feeling

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

I guess there’s been a time in your life when you’ve looked at a new machine, spreadsheet, sales rep, interviewee and thought “this doesn’t look right”. There may be nothing you can actually put your finger on, it just doesn’t feel right. Subsequently when they’ve broken down, not added up, or broken down and not added up you’ve had that smug feeling telling people “I knew there was something wrong there.” Well in recent years there’s been a wealth of evidence supporting that instinct. It’s been called ‘gut feeling’, intuition, instinct, presentiment, a hunch or just a ‘feeling in my water’.

For myself, over the past 10 years or so I’ve been telling everyone on interviewing courses that you shouldn’t decide in the first 20 seconds if the interviewee will get the job or not. I’ve spouted research that says people decide on the best candidate for a job in the first minute and then spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial analysis; i.e. if they feel the candidate is good they ask easy questions. If they take an instant dislike to someone they will ask difficult questions and look less favourably on their answers. This effect has been well studied. In fact there’s a whole industry out there telling people to beware and stop doing it. It’s been described as the ‘halo or horns’ effect. I have warned people about this and pleaded with them not to do it.

Now, I’m not sure if that’s the right advice.

Recently I’ve read a fair amount about trusting your instincts, listening to your inner self, etc… This isn’t all about hippies and meditation and listening to your inner self. It’s scientific as well. I’ve read of a number of situations where this seems to make total sense. After every disaster there are 101 stories about people not going on the plane at the last minute, or deciding not to take that train because of some ‘inner sense’.

In terms of choosing people there’s an increasing mass of evidence that says that the more instinctive we make our choices the better. Many people accept “love at first sight” as a truth. Reading ‘Blink’ – Malcolm Gladwell, you would believe any other way of choosing would be madness. At the heart of the book is a phenomenon called “thin-slicing,” which is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and people based on very narrow ‘slices’ of experience.” There’s the example of the relationship doctor who can estimate the likelihood of a couple staying together within a few minutes of listening to them interact. It would appear that when we do make up our minds instantly we’re often far more accurate than when we spend more time analysing and quantifying.

So, how can we use this in business? I suggest people have a two minute selection interview. Using the logic above it would seem that some form of ‘speed interviewing’ is the way forward. Just think about it. No paperwork to worry about. No justification needed. No more week long assessment tests. The end of assessment centres, exams, psychometric tests… Imagine how much time and money would that save?

There is, unfortunately a few down sides to this. There’s the fact that there are people out there who can manipulate this. Tony Robbins talks about the power of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) where you can build instant rapport with people. You use a mixture of techniques such as mirroring, changing your breathing, altering your tone of voice, tilting your head matching to develop an understanding with people. This can be used for the forces of good or evil. On the one hand it shows you care and want to build a strong relationship and make a stranger more comfortable. On the other hand it is manipulative.

There is also a more fundamental problem with this ‘instant attraction’ theory in that it may not be true. Even though it seems sensible and strikes a chord with us because we’ve all done that. We’ve all made an instant decision and found out it was true in the face of all the evidence. However, I wonder how often we’ve made an instant decision and found it to be wrong? I guess we don’t remember those occasions. There’s a phrase for this in psychological jargon – ‘bottom drawer evidence’. This concerns the mass of evidence gathered that doesn’t fit the theory and is conveniently hidden in the bottom drawer.

Perhaps there is a role in business to listen to your instinct. Interviewing for positions, buying equipment, making strategic decisions. We’re all too quick to ignore our first gut feeling and gather a mass of evidence. Perhaps we could at least acknowledge this.

So, perhaps speed interviewing isn’t such a great idea after all. Well, I’m not really sure. Even after looking at the evidence and writing 800 words on the subject I’ve just got a feeling there’s something in it.


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