As you age, you start to trust your instincts because you have an ever-increasing personal experience record on knowing that they are pretty accurate. In fact, in post-retirement interviews with CEOs, their number one regret is that they did not trust their instincts and act fast enough.  They say this not because history didn’t prove their eventual actions right, but because their instincts told them to take the action long before they did, and they wasted too much time.

Instincts are not something you are born with. They are developed through your career by observation of others and your own record with decision-making, both good and bad. Each event that requires a decision that you make is recorded and stored in a mental accumulative database. Over time, your instincts get increasingly accurate to reality; but rarely do leaders know when to trust them fully.

When our instincts tell us one thing, we immediately check with our past knowledge “data banks” to see if there is compelling evidence to give us confidence in that instinct. Instinct is nearly immediate. It is a ‘gut-feel’ well before the facts are revealed. When we have a strong instinct, we go on a journey to convince ourselves to take action.

Since this a ‘shade of grey’ issue, I have found it difficult in giving people I mentor guidance about when to trust their instincts and act. The truth is, it is different for all people. Individually, people have different rates of learning and requirements to make decisions on which instincts are verified. But I think the issue is so important for a leader, I thought I would take the risk of offering some guidance, delineated by age group.

Under age 30: Discover your instincts: This is a time to get in touch with your instincts. You need to consciously discover what your initial instincts tell you and then compare the final decisions later. If your instincts tell you something (or you have no instinct relative to the particular situation), study the input data for a sufficient amount of time until you are 75% convinced that you have the right answer before you decide. This is the preferred course of action unless, of course, urgency dictates immediate action.

Age 30 to 45: Truth-test your instincts: Depending on your diversity of experience, trust your instincts to the 50% level. You don’t need as much time or data to make decisions as you did when you were younger. You need to prioritize and triage the most critical decisions you have to make. On less critical impact decisions, experiment with quicker action with less data. You may have to fix some bad decisions, but you’ll be surprised by your track record of being right. On more important decisions, take the time to get to a level of convincing yourself with data and advice, but compare that information back to your original instincts.

Over Age 45: Depend on your instincts: Trust your instincts and bet on them. Realize that you have a wealth of past data to depend and rely on. Err on the side of speed and don’t look back. I rarely have seen a decision that cannot be remediated. You can get advice, but don’t overly study the situation. Find mentors to bounce ideas off of to give you more confidence, but definitely err of the side of action.

In a career-reflecting document credited to General Colin Powell, he may have said it best:  “Use the formula P= 40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. Once the information is in the 40 to 70 percent range, go with your gut. Don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100% sure, because by then it is almost always too late…Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.” Well said! My addition would be that the older you get, the less certainty of facts you need.

I have found that most leaders know instinctively what to do way before they pull the trigger, but they studied the situation too long or gave it too much time. That includes me! Try to beat the odds of you being one of those with regrets. Get in touch with your instincts and do it!!!

© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP.  All rights reserved.