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Gut, Heart or Brain? Where do you decide?

Many years ago, someone told me that an interview panel make up their minds about candidates within 3 seconds of their walking into the room. Then everything that candidate says is filtered through the original Yes or No decision. Confirmation bias at work.

Many years ago, someone told me that an interview panel make up their minds about candidates within 3 seconds of their walking into the room. Then everything that candidate says is filtered through the original Yes or No decision. Confirmation bias at work.

The timing of that nugget of information may have been crucial for me. Shortly afterwards, I went for interview for a senior role. Opened the door. Saw a vast expanse of polished wooden floor to cross to take my seat facing a panel of six. Immediately thought “I’ve lost this one”, became ultra-conscious of the way I was walking and fixed my smile.

What did the panel see?

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe a rabbit in the headlights. While I moved towards them, the fleeting look of startle, the fixed smile and the very conscious way I was holding my body probably undermined their confidence in me. Who wants a rabbit in a leadership role?

Their negative filter kicked in almost instantaneously as they watched me walk towards them. And the negative filter in my brain was fired up just as quickly by my bodily reaction to the situation, leading me to discount real achievements and to rush to ill-considered answers to their questions.

Are brain-based decisions transparent and fair?
We all want selection processes to be fair and not to discriminate. So, what’s happened in many organisations, is that detailed success criteria are used to benchmark scoring of candidates in a rational, evidence-based way. We try to train the brain to be the dominant decision maker, because somewhere along the line our culture and belief system tell us that this is better, fairer and more transparent.

However, there’s a question mark about just how transparent we are, if we ignore the evidence that our guts and heart give us. How generously or severely we judge the candidate against the criteria may well be influenced by the feeling we get as we look at that person.

What space is there in interviews, in scoring, in recording evidence or in a decision-making conversation, to discuss the affective and intuitive responses to the candidate? And why should we care?

Changing knowledge about where in the body decisions are taken
Over the past 3 decades there’s been robust research into types of thinking and the role of different parts of the body in decision making.[i] Responses to external stimuli from the cardiac network (heart, affective, feelings, values, relationships) and the enteric network (gut, identity, self-preservation, mobilisation) are faster than those from the brain (head, cognitive, reasoning, meaning making). Our complex and wonderful neural pathways convey messages from gut and heart to the brain at incredible speed, feeding valuable information to the rational mind. The brain then helps us shape and articulate our decisions, conveying further messages about bodily response to other parts of the body.

It’s a dance of reciprocal communication.

Decisions are wiser and more effective when we pay proper attention to heart, gut and brain.

Developing awareness
What can we do to develop awareness, the first step to changes in the way we behave?

As you might expect, I’d advocate some coaching! – though coaching with someone who is competent to work with body and heart as well as rational thinking.[ii] Someone who can support you, give you feedback, challenge you, be alongside you as you explore.

> What’s going on in my body at the moment?
> What am I feeling?
> What’s that telling me?
> What happens if I sit with the feeling for longer?
> What happens if I speak from that awareness?
> What happens if I sit/breathe/walk differently?
> Where’s my energy now?
> How is that influencing my behaviour/decision making?
> What do I now know?
> What will I do with that insight?

Seek neutral feedback on what happens to your body, voice, face, pace and tone of speaking, language as you explore and reflect.

Allow time for the feedback to land and be absorbed into your knowledge about yourself.

Practical Action
Preparing for interview, try visualising a positive outcome, with everyone smiling at the end of the interview and thanking you for your commitment. As you allow this positive picture to fill your mind’s eye, your body will relax and in a positive loop to the rational brain, help you to be in flow as you talk. Your relaxation will be visible to the panel, influencing the filter through which they perceive you, and thus their decision-making process.

On a panel, be as aware as you can be of the messages you are getting from your heart and gut. Talk about them to others, declaring them as you might a conflict of interest, which might help to identify prejudice or bias. Explore what might be going on and how much weight to give this bodily response. A key aspect of most people’s roles is the ability to fit in with the team. How your body responds may be an indicator of how your team may react too and what the quality of team relationships might be.  

Bring all of yourself to the party!

Sarah Gornall, President UK ICF Chapter – International Coach Federation

[i] Sosulu G, Henwood S, Deo A. “Head, Heart and Gut in Decision Making: Development of a Multiple Brain Preference Questionnaire” January-March 2019 Sage Open Publishing.

[ii] ICF coaches work with the whole person. PCC coaches are expected to explore energy, language, emotion, tone of voice; to give feedback; to develop awareness and explore learning.

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