Your Gut is Talking to You. Are You Listening?

Do you trust your gut? Like, really trust it—enough to factor it into your business planning and decision-making? Few leaders do. Most rely on facts and statistics and give little credence to this powerful and reliable resource.

Honing Intuition is the topic of the latest CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network white paper. It is based on a presentation given to Network members by Erin Oliver, Vice President, Health, Safety and Sustainability at Modern Niagara.

Oliver, who studied kinesiology, said that the connection between the gut and the brain was not discussed when she was in school. Today, she points out, we know the gut is the second brain, and leaders should place as much trust in what it is telling them as they do facts and statistics. "Too many leaders get stuck in the numbers," says Oliver. "We need to find a way to drive inspiration and trust intuition."

In her presentation, she talked about the role intuition plays in innovation, change management and sustainability. She discussed why it should be integrated into these activities and stressed the importance of encouraging the practice of "doing a gut check." She also shared several examples of how it lives and breathes at Modern Niagara, including their response to COVID.

By the time WHO declared the pandemic, the team at Modern Niagara was already mounting their response. They had held their first COVID HSE Council meeting, third safety talk, and presented a proposal to the executive team to launch a COVID crisis committee. Oliver says team members kicked into action because their guts told them something was wrong, and the numbers and facts quickly substantiated that they were right.

"Data is good, and knowledge and experience allow us to sort data even further, but that is a low threshold for success. This just gets us to the minimum. If you want to get further and truly innovate, you need to combine knowledge, experience, passion and intuition." Oliver cautioned that relying exclusively on facts and statistics, without these other ingredients, can lead to analysis paralysis. When this happens, organizations relinquish innovation and make room for someone else to get there first.

Some other key takeaways from the session and the white paper include:

  1. Listen to both sides of the story– Facts and statistics are important, but they will only get you so far. Research shows the insight gleaned from listening to your gut can be extremely valuable, and when combined with passion, can propel your organization to the next level.
  2. Make sure to do a gut check when you are in a highly emotional state – When we are emotionally charged our body gives us signals. The key is to heed them. When you think, "I can't stomach this." there is a reason. When you feel shivers, it's not always because you're cold. It is your body warning you or prompting you to take action.
  3. Encourage your team to listen to intuition and let them learn from one another – Oliver says that at Modern Niagara, they encourage everyone to do a gut check when they are planning and making decisions. Sometimes they won't get it right, but they have worked hard to create a safe environment where staff can share stories about successes and failures, so they can learn from one another.
  4. Don't shy away from crazy ideas – The innovation team at Modern Niagara comprises many disciplines and skillsets. Together they help the organization figure out what it needs to make the organization's vision a reality. Oliver says, "Sometimes ideas seem counterintuitive, even crazy, but they are amazingly exciting. Crazy is just the unknown. When you break "crazy" into small bits and start working at them, it's so exciting to see where you can go."
  5. Communicate and paint a clear picture – Change management efforts can be derailed if there is insufficient communication. Let people know where you are headed, pay attention to subtle cues, and make sure that the change management plan incorporates peoples' thoughts, ideas, skills, resources.
  6. Make sure that what you do is sustainable – Oliver stresses that "Leaders must foster a drive towards intuition and innovation that comes with passion and focus. This includes a solid change management plan with the appropriate vision, skills, and a commitment to sustainability. You might do something really good, but without sustainability, it won't be woven into the fabric of what you do every day."

The Fast Company article "Scientific Proof Your Gut is Best at Making Decisions" highlights that the information provided by our inner voice, combined with facts and statistics, can lead to better decision-making.

Oliver believes the onus is on leaders to create the right environment for this to happen. She says Modern Niagara CEO Brad McAninch is an excellent role model of this behaviour. He sets the tone for leaders to be more approachable, kind, patient, and transparent about beliefs, passions, and vulnerabilities. This helps build trust and ensures people at all levels of the organization feel safe and supported listening to their intuition.

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