Leaders have to navigate through a world of burgeoning complexity and make tough decisions daily.
The nature of these decisions can differ depending on the circumstances at hand.
Arriving at an ideal solution will be different based on the amount of data available and whether circumstances are stationary or changing:
- When there is enough data and the circumstances are relatively stationary, the experience can be a good predictor for how things will play out in the future
- When data is scarce and the environment is always changing, past experience becomes irrelevant
Even though a leader’s intuition can be an indispensable tool in their arsenal when dealing with this complexity, plenty of leaders are skeptical about how useful their “gut feeling” actually is.
This skepticism can reach the point of derision of others who rely on anything else other than cold-hard, rational thought.
Such a cynical attitude may result in an overreliance on analytical methods without giving room to other faculties that can prove valuable.
The Pros and Cons of Following One’s Intuitions
Just like anything else, intuition has its strengths and limitations, and understanding them will differentiate a good leader from a bad one.
Before leaders can incorporate their intuition into the decision-making process, they should learn about its strengths and limitations to get a better idea of when it’s suitable to rely on gut feeling, and when it would be better to look for other options.
Pro: Our Intuitions Are an Integral Part of Who We Are
How do our intuitions form?
Every experience we’ve ever had, every book we’ve ever read, every person we’ve ever met, and ever fact or datum we’ve ever collected all form the basis upon which our intuitions operate.
They all percolate in our head and lie dormant there until they are triggered by the right occasion.
For instance, when we meet someone for the first time and get this instant “gut feeling” that there is something about them that irks us, we are relying on our experience to judge this individual, and odds are they are behaving in a manner that reminds of someone else whom we are not fond of.
Because of all of this, it is safe to say that our intuitions are our mind’s shortcut for processing the enormous amount of data we collect throughout our lives and providing us with the information that is relevant to the matter at hand.
Knowing where our intuitions come from, is it any surprise that leaders who listen to their intuitions tend to be more satisfied with their decisions in comparison to those who only rely solely on facts and data?
Pro: Our Intuitions Can Deal With Complex Situations
Aside from the fact that we live in a world that is becoming more and more intricate by the minute, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where the data we have either is bad or, even worse, contradicts itself, which forces us to look elsewhere for guidance.
It is at these exact moments that our intuitions can come to the rescue.
On the other hand, there are instances where we will be flooded with data and information, but this overabundance won’t necessarily be a good thing.
We could have so much data that it could stifle us, and any more information we gather will hinder the decision-making process, making the resources spent gathering this extra intel a waste.
At such a point, a leader has to realize that waiting for more information is costly and that their best option is to make a decision with what they have.
This is another instance where a leader’s intuition can prove invaluable.
Con: Relying on Our Intuitions Can Be So Alluring That It Blinds Us to the Pitfalls
We’ve all heard the story:
An individual gets a flash of insight, something that everyone else had missed till then.
Our protagonist’s gut is telling them to pursue the opportunity, but everyone else around them is calling them crazy for being so emotional and passionate about something that isn’t backed by the available facts.
Eventually, our hero triumphs, proving his intuition to be correct, and makes a killing in the process.
There are so many examples of this prototypical story that it has become ingrained in our zeitgeist, from Fred Smith believing that he could revolutionize the transport business and creating Federal Express to Henry Ford realizing that he could increase the efficiency of his factories by using an assembly line and turning Ford into one of the largest car manufacturers in the first half of the twentieth century.
We have become so enamored with this story of David beating Goliath, regardless of the odds, that some business leaders tend to believe that they too could make a fortune by following their intuition.
What many of those “enterprising” leaders fail to realize is that for every success story we hear, there are countless more where Goliath pummels David.
Even the people who may have been the hero in one story make gargantuan mistakes: Fred Smith, the man behind FedEx, also attempted to launch ZapMail, which ended up being a complete dud.
Con: Our Intuitions Can Be Fallible
Cognitive scientists like to remind us time and again that we are all prone to cognitive biases, faulty reasoning that can affect our decision-making process.
The problem is that these biases operate on a subconscious level, which is the same level at which our intuition exists.
Consequently, not only are our intuitions more prone to cognitive biases than our rational thought, but we are also liable to conflate the results presented to us by our biases with those offered to us by our intuitions.
So, Should We Follow Our Intuition?
Some may argue that given the flaws inherent in our intuition, we are better off ignoring it and relying on facts and figures.
However, this view overlooks the times when our intuition can add value to the decision at hand; it is all about knowing when to use our intuition and when to ignore it.
We can rely on our intuition if two conditions are met:
- The environment within which we are making our decision is somewhat predictable, meaning that our past experience can be a reliable informer of possible future events.
- The decision we are currently facing is one we have faced before more than once and have been able to handle successfully more often than not.
In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman gives an example of how an experienced firefighter can reliably trust their gut because they have seen numerous situations, several of which were similar to each other, and have successfully handled those situations.
Can We Improve Our Intuition?
The good news is that we can all sharpen our intuitions and get better at using our gut.
It all starts with acknowledging that our intuitions are an integral part of who we are and how we see the world.
In other words, rather than automatically fighting it or trying to ignore it, we need to first assess whether our intuition has anything useful to contribute.
This shift in mentality is important because it allows us to learn from our mistakes and to appreciate that mistakes are necessary for the learning process.
We also need to widen the pool from which our intuition draws its inspiration.
We previously mentioned that our intuition is the result of our cumulative experience, regardless of whether that experience comes from reading a book or going through a real-life situation.
So, the first thing we can do is to read more, allowing us to incorporate the experiences and ideas of others into our decisions.
We can also expose ourselves to more life experiences, especially ones that challenge us.
This can be as simple as surrounding ourselves with different people, many of whom we may disagree with, to as challenging as identifying personal fears and finding ways of confronting them.
Along with honing our intuition, we should teach ourselves to blunt the negative effects that can come with it.
For example, anytime we are making a decision, we ought to assess our emotional state and make sure that we aren’t being blinded by a negative emotion such as anger, fear, or stress.
We can also learn to stop every once in a while and ask ourselves whether our decision is affected by a bias of sorts.
Combining Our Intuition With Rationality
Although our intuitions have a lot to offer, we should never be complacent and forego rational thought.
The best scenario is one where we can marry both modes of thought together, and decision sciences furnish us with so many tools that it is relatively easy to analyze a situation rationally and see how the final results measure against our intuitions, giving us a solution that offers the best of both worlds.
Jen McKenzie is an independent business consultant from New York. She writes extensively on business, education and human resource topics. When Jennifer is not at her desk working, you can usually find her hiking or taking a road trip with her two dogs. You can reach Jennifer on Twitter: @jenmcknzie