Why managers should use their ‘three brains’ to make decisions

Leaders making difficult choices should learn whether to listen to their head, heart or gut feeling, says Karlien Vanderheyden 

‘My head is saying one thing, my heart is saying another’. A common cliché bandied around when making a tough decision. With business leaders and managers having to make fast, difficult choices on a daily basis, the struggle between what their head is saying and what their heart is saying is likely to be all too familiar. 

However, studies actually suggest that the conflict when making an important decision is often not only between the head and the heart, but also their gut feeling too. Studies into behavioural modelling suggest that we actually have three ‘brains’, all of which can help in important decision-making. But which ‘brain’ should leaders follow? Their head, their heart or their gut? Each of these brains has a specialised purpose and one can be more beneficial than others in particular situations. 

Head brain

The ‘head brain’ is specialised in strategic thinking and aids us in producing new ideas. It is responsible for leaders’ rational thinking and, in instances where a strong strategic decision must be made, the head brain should be followed. In today’s fast-paced world, leaders need to be able to develop new ideas to allow their organisations to meet changing conditions at just the right time. If leaders fail to adequately use their head brain, their reasoning might be flawed and as a result they could potentially ignore signals from their environment or make incorrect judgments. 

The head brain is best followed in the rational side of decision-making such as drawing up lists of pros and cons for each decision, making SWOT analyses, seeking rational arguments and convincing colleagues, interpreting facts and figures related to ideas and collating strong objective information. 

Heart brain

The ‘heart brain’ holds a leader’s values and emotional intelligence, allowing them to connect with others and express their feelings and concerns. It also allows them to build relationships and trust with others in a business environment, and helps leaders to cooperate with others. The heart should be used in business choices that affect a varied group of people. If leaders use their hearts they can better consider others in decision-making, choosing the best outcome for all involved. 

The heart is best followed in tasks where leaders are required to make decisions that involve connecting with others, listening to their feelings and needs, and showing sincere curiosity for what they have to say. The heart should be followed in instances of conflict resolution, people management and decision-making related to sensitive issues. 

Gut brain

The ‘gut brain’, or gut feeling, enables leaders to instinctively respond to challenges, opposition and danger, and gives them the courage to challenge the status quo. It allows leaders to instantly acknowledge threats to their business, and stops them from taking any unnecessary risks involved in decision-making. Not making full use of this gut brain will make it difficult for leaders to implement plans and take strong action. 

The gut brain should be utilised in instinctive business decisions, allowing leaders to avert choices that could potentially have disastrous outcomes, such as important financial decisions, the hiring of staff and investment ventures. The gut brain allows us to implement plans and take strong action, ensuring we have a good judgement of the risks involved in doing so. It is important that leaders open up to these gut feelings, and put their intuition front and centre when making instinctive decisions. 

For the best outcomes, it is vital for leaders to learn how to utilise all three of their ‘brains’ in the most effective way possible. The challenge for organisations is to provide strong training for their leaders, helping them to identify which ‘brain’ is best suited to deal with each situation that they encounter, and which should be listened to when making important individual decisions to ensure leaders are as effective as possible in their decision-making. 

Karlien Vanderheyden is professor of people management and leadership at Vlerick Business School, Belgium