In this post we’ll look at the role of intuition in leadership. We’ll explore what intuition is, what role it might play in leadership and how to develop it in ways that can be incredibly powerful and help you lead in completely new and more effective ways.
There is a word of caution to make you aware of before we kick into our exploration of intuition and that is that in some settings and environments it can be a really inaccurate way of making judgements. It can blind you to the facts and lead to you drawing conclusions that are unhelpful to you, those around you and ultimately the effectiveness of your business. I’ll get into that in more detail shortly, but for now, just be aware that this post is not going to be recommending you make all your judgements in the future based on what your gut is telling you.
I was talking about intuition on a leadership programme about six years ago with the senior team of a UK-based construction company and the CFO was adamant that there was no such a thing as intuition. Despite describing it to him through many of the labels that are used to explain it, he was certain that it did not exist. Being respectful of individual positions, I asked him to share with us how he knew that it didn’t exist, “I just know” he replied…Mmmm. He failed to see the funny side of that but the rest of his team did.
There are a number of terms that are used to describe similar phenomenon and I don’t want us to get stuck in a semantic debate but you would know intuition variously as:
We need to stick with one term that will cover it for the sake of this post and actually I want to go with a word that may not be that familiar to you: heuristic. A heuristic is a decision that is made quickly, whilst under some form of internal or external pressure or perceived risk (adapted from the ideas of Kahneman and Tversky, 1979).
Thinking about the elements of that definition will help get clarity about what we mean by intuition when we think about it in relation to decision-making. It is a fast process, often seemingly non-conscious, that is the result of a perceived risk or pressure. It is the brain’s way of short-cutting the process of decision-making when under pressure. Think about the example of a fire officer going into a burning building with her team and at some point she tells everyone to evacuate because she feels that the ceiling is going to collapse. She doesn’t know why she thinks that, she just does. She is not conscious of logically going through a process to conclude now is the time to get out. Everyone leaves the building and a few seconds later the ceiling falls in. Great intuition. Helpful decision-making. Powerful stuff.
Or is it?
According to the aforementioned Professor Daniel Kahneman, our intuitive abilities are actually pretty poor. They are often biased, and work from a basis of incomplete knowledge. In his opinion they are often little better than guesses. And in a business context, in some circumstances, his opinions can be seen to be both accurate and helpful.
As a leader you probably don’t want to be launching your organisation strategy based solely on your gut instinct. You shouldn’t stake the future of your organisation and the livelihoods of all those that are employed with you, on a hunch. Taking a more logical, thoughtful and thorough approach will be key to improving the chances of your organisation succeeding.
It seems that if you can break a task down into its separate parts (known as a decomposable task) such as the elements of working out a strategy, then a more conscious, logical and applied methodology is more effective. Guessing is not the way to go here!
However, when tasks are non-decomposable, i.e. when they cannot be so easily broken down into separate parts, they become more open to using heuristics. You can tap into your intuition to make decisions more quickly (See interesting article by Dane et al, 2012) when the task is more ‘whole’ in nature.
So, what sort of tasks in a work contexts might lend themselves to such an approach? As a leader, you are leading other human beings. Human behaviour is not always easy to break down into logical parts - it is non-decomposable - indeed, behaviour loses something in the process of deconstruction. A heuristic approach is something we all use with other human beings all the time. I’m convinced this short-cutting with other humans is in part an effect of evolution: we needed to be able to judge other human beings quickly to see if they were a threat to us or of some use to our future survival.
Great leaders are able to use this awareness every day at work to get a sense of where each member of their team is at any given point. They use intuition and finely tuned antenna to check-in - often whilst they themselves are completely unaware of doing it. However, there is a secret element to being able to use such heuristics more effectively and that is the extent of your relevant experience. You cannot be informed and make decisions very accurately, very quickly about people you know less well. Put another way, the better you know someone the more accurate your heuristic decision-making about them is likely to be. Furthermore, the less practised you are at attuning yourself to your team, the less you will have gained into helpful insights, which is why practising the skills of insight and intuition are key to becoming increasingly effective.
An important caveat to the use of heuristics as a leader is that I would suggest only using them as a basecamp from which you should test your rapidly formed conclusions. If you get a sense about a person in your team or a peer, or your boss, be aware that your own intuition is not a perfect too that is without faults. It cannot be 100% accurate for two very simple reasons: firstly, your experience is never complete enough to be right all the time and secondly, human beings are not static. We all change, often. That means that as a subject of our intuition other human beings are notoriously difficult to judge. Hence my suggestion that what you do is hold the ‘quick’ judgements you make and seek further, slower emerging information before you make any conclusions.
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