The Corporate Shrink

When should you go with your gut?

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

We’ve all learned that management is a science – but I often find myself relying on intuition, whether the decision is about which company to partner with or whom to promote. What do you make of the role of “gut feel” in business or investment decisions? (issue 88, page 52)

Gut feelings in business (and other games of chance) can be both valuable and dangerous. While acting from the gut is often lauded as virtuous (See Schwarzenegger, Arnold), if everyone always did that, we’d suffer wholesale indigestion.

The term “gut feel” reflects an attempt to differentiate between thoughts from the head – more rational, intellectual, and dispassionate – and those that come from somewhere deeper and are harder to articulate. Sometimes known as intuition, it is more closely tied to the unconscious, that part of our mind that operates largely outside of everyday awareness and that determines so much of our behavior.

I don’t want to suggest that intuition is, per se, wrong. But you should develop the capacity to reflect on gut feelings rather than acting on them impulsively. That means testing them out in the light of day against more rational judgments – but also understanding where they’re coming from in your own psyche.

So do you think a potential partnership will soar because you intuitively appreciate the company’s leadership and innovative ideas? Or is your gut feeling based on an unconscious susceptibility to the charismatic CEO who represents, say, the father figure you never had? The former involves applying a finely developed ability to see something remarkable while the latter is rooted in an irrational wish to idealize someone who probably doesn’t deserve it. If you can’t distinguish between the two, I suggest sticking with numbers.

I’ve been freelancing for an ad agency for a year. Soon after I arrived, the CEO and her lieutenants left to start a new agency, saying they weren’t being taken care of by our parent. Now the place is a mess, with unhappy clients and a stream of people quitting. I need some words of wisdom – I know I can leave, but my work ethic won’t let me.

It doesn’t take much wisdom to tell you to leave now rather than waiting till the Titanic is submerged. If I were your psychoanalyst, though, I’d use this as an opportunity to consider why you’re still fiddling as the ship takes on water.

Your observation about your work ethic hints at an overly strict conscience that leads you to stay in bad situations. On one hand, you resist forming attachments (you’re still a freelancer, after all). Yet once you do make a connection, you feel obliged to hang on, even when doing so is self-destructive.

It’s possible that your work ethic has its origins in your relationship with your parents. Did they raise you in a way that made you feel obliged to take care of them? Did you grow up feeling neglected emotionally, such that you now overly identify with your long-suffering colleagues who aren’t being taken care of?

I’m not suggesting you adopt a me-first attitude; I don’t think your conscience would allow that, anyway. But your rescue fantasies may be misplaced. If it’s you who felt victimized years ago, then seek help now rather than turning your anger inward and trying to save others.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Ask him your questions about the psychology of business (