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Listen to your gut...and dig deeper

“I just trust my gut”, you think. 

You hire someone you feel right about, and reject to the ones you don’t. 

A new prospect says and does a few things which feel dodgy, but seems like a nice guy (LINK), so you take him on as a client anyway. Many weeks or months later something happens which removes all doubt, and you end up letting him go, and you think, “I knew it. I KNEW IT. My gut told me he was going to be a problem client.”

Your gut helps you with many (if not all) business decisions. When to take the business funding or take out the loan. Which app to use, or not use. Which group to join. Which marketing course to take. Whether to grow and scale, or dial back. Whether to hire a family member. 

Your gut is - most of the time - not wrong. 

But if you don’t know HOW and WHY your gut is helping you make those decisions, then you’re doomed to repeat most of them. 

Until you build an actual system, a process, a digging deep into WHAT was it that your gut didn’t like. 
I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” many years ago and being struck by the story of a museum which bought a statue which they thought quite valuable and a solid addition to their collection. Several art historians and experts saw the statue and thought, that’s a fake. There’s something not right about it. 

The museum bought the statue anyway (for ten million dollars) and later - with the help of the historians and experts - discovered it was, indeed, a fake.

The experts knew it instantly: but they weren’t able to say WHY or exactly WHAT was not right immediately. That took time - even for the experts - weeks, and weeks, and analysis, and research, and comparison.... only to say “Yes, it’s a fake”. 

Their gut was right. But being able to prove why, with detail and support, is even more important than making the initial call. 

Sadly, in this case it was a ten million dollar mistake for the museum. 

You’ve had similar experiences - maybe not on the ten million dollar scale, but on a comparative scale for your business, your life, your team. 

You’ve hired someone who ended up being literally one of the best people you’ve ever had and who has changed your business for good - and it was based off a few emails, a quick call, and a handshake. And you wish you could find ten more people just like this person, but you’re not getting the same feeling from the other applicants who have come to you. 

Or, you’ve taken on a client who ended up costing you financially (they didn’t pay or demanded unreasonable payments), but there was an even greater cost in time, emotional energy, and exhaustion. You laid awake at nights. Spent hours emailing lawyers and reading contracts and having meetings. Told the whole story to people close to you, trying to figure out where you went wrong - or saying “I knew it - I knew it all along. Why did I take them on??”

But even then, there are other clients you took on who you had a little niggle of doubt about...and they’ve been just fine. Nothing wrong with them. Actually quite decent clients. Was your gut wrong there? Do you just get it wrong from time to time? Were you simply having “a bad day”? 

When your gut says something is or isn’t right, the most important thing you can do is FIGURE OUT WHY.

Even more: FIGURE OUT WHAT. 

Ask the “what” questions

Question everything. Question, question, question. 

Ask WHAT instead of “why?” 

This person I had a bad gut feeling about... from what? What exactly did they say? What was a red flag, a pink flag? What was slightly annoying but no big deal on its own? What reminded me of a past bad experience ? What was THAT experience? 

List out every single tiny thing - especially those things you are tempted to say aren’t really important. Things like: 
  • that side comment they made in an email, or a text 
  • a “joke” which something told you might not be a joke (even though they laughed and said of course they didn’t mean it) 
  • the length of time it takes them to respond (too slow or too fast) 
  • the expression on their face when you said no
  • comments made about someone else
  • a few online reviews which all tend to lean to the negative 
  • a question they ask about an allowable expense which feels indicative of more to come
  • a delay in payment (with all the accompanying “reasons”) 
  • not showing up for a meeting without saying why or apologising 

On their own, none of these are a reason to say you’ll never have anything to do with this person. But they tell you something. 

And part of trusting your gut means getting to know it better: which means digging deeper.

WHAT does each one of these tell you? What is your deep-down hesitation which you’re even now trying to pass off because “you could be wrong”? Or you want to be nice. Or it feels unkind. Or they’re the friend of a friend, or the daughter of a client, or you worked with them in the past - so there can’t be anything wrong really. They came recommended! 

Check your past experiences

One area to take care with is the experiences you’ve had in the past. 

These can affect our ‘gut feeling’, but it may not be because of the person themselves: it may be related to a bad past experience which reminds you of this one. 

This new applicant has traits or mannerisms reminding you of an employee who didn’t work out, and cost your firm a lot of money. 

A company wants to work together, and their suggestions suddenly remind you of a business partner or colleague who seemed really supportive, but you discovered later was quite manipulative. 

This person looks like, or has the same name, of someone you were in a relationship with and it ended up falling apart very badly. 

A training course or coaching programme which sounds really good, but then you remember the other one sounded good too and you wasted a lot of money on it.  

This is why you don’t “simply trust your gut” - first because your ‘gut feeling’ could actually be ‘a previous bad experience’ which you’re applying to this one. And second, because it’s not about a list of a few things. 

You’re looking for patterns. 

Not just the one off comment or the one-day delay in payment...but all of the things together.The longer term story. Whether this behaviour was a one off or is indicative of the way they live their life and run their business.

Look for patterns in the ‘what’

Even reading the list above you’re thinking, “oh, if i saw those things I’d be saying no straight away”.

But that’s because it’s clearly listed out. It’s not just one thing - it’s multiple things from the list. And if we don’t take the time to clearly list it out, and look at it more objectively, and see the patterns repeated in particular areas, we won’t be able to catch it next time. 

Patterns like....

  • delay
  • deceit
  • negativity
  • unkindness
  • racism 
  • self focus 
  • arrogance
  • defensiveness 
  • bitterness
  • pressure 

We see those things and think, “oh i don’t want a client like that. I’d never take a client who is a liar or negative or racist”. 

But it’s in the repetition of very small things we discover whether someone has patterns which don’t fit with our values....and then when our gut says “there’s something not right about them”, we can look at the small (and big) things and say “this person is a defensive, self focused person who tends to the negative, and that’s not okay because our values include taking responsibility, being humble and staying positive”. 

And “I can see that in this instance, and that instance, and that other one, over a period of two months, in multiple forms of communication.” 

Making that connection is possible when you’ve worked on your own personal values and your company values, and listed those out, and been very clear about what is okay and what is not okay. What works and doesn’t. What fits and doesn’t. Who you’ll work with and who you won’t. 

All of this means you’re actually giving them the chance you want to give them. 

If they have good patterns and positive behaviours and fit with your values - you’ll see it. 

And if they don’t, you’ll see that too, and you’ll know WHY. 

You’ll know WHAT. 

You’ll know PATTERNS. 

And you’ll be protecting yourself from making snap decisions with a vague feeling you aren’t sure whether to trust or not. 

Because once you have that structure, you can build it into a process: 

  • questions to ask in a form or questionnaire 
  • tester projects or ways to determine if what they say adds up
  • reviewing past history (theirs and yours!)
  • getting references 
  • setting timelines for processes so you don’t decide too fast (or too slow)
  • involving others in the process so they can see patterns, too 

Ultimately you’re still trusting your gut: but you’ve built what your gut has been telling you from ten or twenty or thirty years’ experience into a process you can trust, and which will not be swayed by how you happened to be feeling that day, the person’s first name or where they’re from, a prior bad experience, or just something as simple as what you ate that morning or whether you didn’t have enough coffee.

What's your gut telling you right now?

Who or what is your “gut” holding you back from right now? WHAT is it about the person or situation which doesn’t feel right? List it out - either in a reply email to me, or just in a note to yourself. 


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