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Intuition and Decision-making

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My earliest interest in leadership and management was around the topic of decision-making and success.  Why do some people need lots of information – and even then don’t take decisions?  Why do some leaders move forward on the basis of very little information?

I first began to understand intuition in action when working on a consulting project for a specialist hospital in south-west England.  Head Injury patients were recovering from surgery and the nurses reported their observations of very subtle signs and signals from the patients.  They believed they saw a correlation between these early signs and later recovery (or lack of it).

Malcolm Gladwell explored this further in his book ‘Blink’, where he described the impact of seeing repeating patterns – either in behaviour or inanimate objects, such as the sculptures at the Getty Museum.  An expert in the field will know, in the blink of an eye, whether the work is genuine or a fake.  Just as the nurse can tell by the blink of an eye, whether the patient will walk, talk and return to work.

One definition of ‘intuition’ is “the truth foreseen”.  This makes it sound mystical, or like I’m sitting here with a crystal ball.  In fact the latest cover of Gladwell’s book plays to a ‘new age’ audience.  The good news is that neuroscience has indicated a perfectly rational explanation for this rapid assimilation of information.  Apparently, when we habitually perform an action or thinking process, the brain strips out the non-essential factors – like language processing – and stores the essential information in a particular part of the brain. This makes for rapid access and minimum effort in brain processing and links to key learning steps:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

Intuition stands on the fourth step: we’ve locked up our knowledge and packed it away into our unconscious.

But there are downsides to making an instant decision on the basis of what may be very little evidence.  Take the example of the recovering patient; if he or she has the grit and determination to prove the experts wrong and rehabilitation creates a better than predicted outcome – might the medics be potentially undermining recovery by their predictions?  Low expectations by teachers are known to have a significant impact on pupils.  So the lesson here might be: yes, you have a vast amount of past experience, but don’t let that get in the way of future possibilities.

This is particularly true of people who might say “we tried that but it didn’t work” – the subtext of which is “let’s not bother now”.  But that was then; this is now.  Many factors may be different: the seismic shifts in digital technology are just one example where something attempted 10, 5 or even 1 year ago, may have a totally different outcome now.

The art of decision-making rests on a complex mixture of factors:

  • Unpack past experience: look at the factors that make up yours and the team’s past successes
  • Explore future possibilities: be willing to explore new options, however fantastical
  • Create a shared vision: engage the team into a new future
  • Work with the current context: be realistic about today’s challenges – without letting them limit your ambitions
  • Understand the risks: and get the team to work out how to mitigate them

As a leader, it’s your job to trust your team to deliver, and to resource them such that they can be successful.  This may mean reminding them of what’s already available; it may mean that you’ve got to unlock other resources in order to support their success.

My conclusion is that neuroscience shows that an intuition-based decision as to whether something fake or genuine seems a great use of this faculty.  Whether a single leader’s intuition is a great predictor for future success is less clear.   Building on team relationships and bringing the experience of the whole team into a shared vision seems a much better way to lead – by taking a considered decision that has a better chance of success.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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