Trust Your Instincts

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Michelle was a phenomenal salesperson, so it seemed only logical to promote her to the Director of Sales position. But just three months later the whole department is in disarray and sales are down 15%.

Michelle knows sales. She has great emotional intelligence. But she’s not performing well in her new role.

What’s going on here?

Since the time of Plato, we’ve understood that the human mind has at least three main domains or functions: thinking (cognitive), feeling (affective), and doing (conative). The first two have been studied the most. As a result, we have many tools to help us determine what we know and how we feel. Cognitive tests, which assess what you know, include IQ tests, the GRE, the SAT, and industry specific skills assessments. Affective tests, such as the DiSC and Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, focus on revealing your personality, motivation, and values.

But what about the conative domain? It gets very little attention. This is very unfortunate. Understanding the conative domain will improve your success at work. And additionally, unlike the other two domains, the conative domain is not likely to change over the course of your life.

So what is the conative domain all about?

Your conative style is how you instinctively respond to a challenge or take action. It is your modus operandi. In the 1970’s, a sociologist named Kathy Kolbe began studying the conative domain of the mind. Based on information she gleaned from a decade of interviews and case studies, Kolbe was able to identify four conative instincts that humans use to problem solve and take action. She went on to develop the Kolbe Index, an evaluative tool used by thousands of individuals and organizations.

According to Kathy Kolbe, the four conative instincts are:

Fact Finder – Instinct to learn more, get more information, evaluate, and deliberate

Follow Through – Instinct to organize, develop systems, coordinate, plan, and schedule

Quick Start – To come up with solutions, accept risk, experiment, innovate, and get going

Implementer – Instinct to act physically in the real world, to demonstrate things and use tools

The Kolbe Index is relatively simple and inexpensive to administer; it only requires the individual to answer 36 questions. But the knowledge it provides is immensely powerful—and it can often be applied immediately. Imagine that Michelle, the salesperson we began by discussing, had taken the Kolbe Index before being moved into her new role as Director of Sales. We might have discovered that she had very high Quick Start (she gets going, accepts risk, and innovates). This would explain why she is so great at sales. But perhaps her Follow Through (her ability to coordinate, plan, and pay attention to details) was nearly non-existent. This knowledge would make us think twice about moving her into a supervisory role. This is not only because she might not be good at it, but also because she might find the work draining and uninteresting.

Still, it might be possible to modify the Director of Sales role so that Michelle could succeed in it. We might allow her to trade the administrative, detail-oriented requirements of the position with someone else (someone with high Follow Through.) Michelle could then take on additional responsibilities she was better suited for, for example, training and coaching the sales team individually.

There is a place for each person to do their best work and make a meaningful contribution. But finding the right place for the right person involves more than just assessing the person’s technical aptitude and personality. Conative style is the last critical piece of the puzzle. The closer you stay to who you really are, the more effective and happy you’ll be.

This is the insight that Kathy Kolbe has provided. And it aligns strongly with Sterling Integrators’ leadership and organizational development philosophy. We all have instincts, we need to learn what they are and trust them. The Kolbe Index can help us do just that.


Image credit: “Brain Infographic” by bplanet at

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