'Un-Thinking' - Are Instincts Useful At Work?

This article by Ian Leslie discusses how performance in critical moments can be enhanced by removing your 'thinking self' from the equation. It reminds me very much of the writing of W. Timothy Gallway and his 'The Inner Game Of Work' book, especially its reliance on examples from tennis. The voice of 'Self 1' in your head saying judgemental and outcome-focused things like, "Hit it to his left," and "Ouch, you didn't hit it far enough to his left."

The trick, apparently, is in knowing what to ignore. Our brain's inner chatter can drown out the really important steps in the process to success. Successful people focus on the process. They might be motivated by the potential outcomes but they focus on the process. The sentence that best summarises the crucial distinction is, "Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought." Leslie and Gallway argue that with the practice and experience and, for want of a better term, 'pre-thinking', top performers succeed because they trust their instincts when moments arrive in their performance when there just isn't time to stop and think. Well, not at the very pedestrian pace that our conscious minds are capable of anyway.

Atul Gawande's book 'The Checklist Manifesto' tackles the same subject but from a different angle. Rather than saying that in critical moments we should rely on our subconscious instincts, he favours a simple checklist. We cannot be trusted. I need to point out that he isn't talking about tennis games or run-of-the-mill job tasks. He is writing about life-and-death work scenarios - airline pilots and hospitals. The evidence is there that educated, experienced and confident (ie egotistical) experts need to have a simple but formal checking step in their process. It is their very education, experience and confidence that makes that necessary.

To my mind, if the question is, "Are instincts useful at work?" the answer lies in my stock answer, "It depends."

It depends on the experience of the person and the seriousness of the consequences. Is hitting a tennis ball comparable to making a sale? If you hit a tennis ball thousands of times, you'll get used to instantly assessing the physical steps needed, regardless of how the ball is coming towards you. It might not be exactly comparable but the same lesson applies - deliberate practice and feedback over time will make you more effective at making decisions in the sales process that will improve your chances of success. It might get talked about as, "Oh Lauren's just got an amazing instinct for sales," but, more likely, Lauren's put in a ton of time and effort through practice and feedback that makes it look instinctive. Just like Djokovic gets accused by Federer of being "lucky," maybe the harder he works, the luckier he gets. Maybe, if Lauren is such a great salesperson, she could sell Djokovic a decent haircut?...



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Once a month you'll get a single email digest of the article postings and updates from Terry Williams - keynote motivational conference or after-dinner speaker and leadership author. Sometimes funny, sometimes inspirational, often provocative. A unique New Zealand perspective from a thought leader generating and challenging ideas to help you learn to lead, motivate, influence, engage and move your team. Engage people; Improve results!