Leading with intuition:

Intuition is that rapid, instinctive form of decision making that everyone performs. We don't know necessarily why we choose an option, but we do, and have a strong sense that it is correct.

Intuition has been shown to be based on a series of information processing shortcuts that occur in our thinking, particularly where there is uncertainty or incomplete information.

Our brains seek a fast, mostly correct answer to a question, and uses what is immediately available to it to make it.

This means that the decision is based on everything that is available to the brain at that moment, including feelings, memories, knowledge and any subtle cues from the environment. The information is passed into working memory and processed, mainly using pattern matching (what is it like?) confirmation bias (additional facts fit the pattern and increase confidence) and narrative bias (imagined cause-effect connections between information, even where they don't exist).

Leading with intuition is the ‘go to’ style for many leaders, but there are really important reasons that understanding your intuitive process is key to harnessing any benefit from it — and not get caught in its traps.

Where intuition works:

Intuition works where the information available for processing (and the pattern matching process) is valuable and accurate. This occurs where individuals have high levels of experience in circumstances that are similar to the decision-making context. A fireman that has an intuition that a building is about to collapse and gets everyone out seconds before the roof caves in is probably picking up subtle cues he is not consciously aware of, and using these to create the decision based on a pattern he has been exposed to many times in training and in real life.

Where it fails

Intuition cannot work well in novel scenarios, because there is no established pattern to match cues against, and there is simply no experience in detecting and selecting valuable cues from the environment (versus noise). Instead, intuitive decision making in such circumstances is most likely based on feelings, stories, memories and imagined or ‘favourite' patterns — and will have no better odds than chance of leading to success.

Where intuition works for leaders

Intuitive leadership works within the parameters of our experience and our comfort zone. When we know which signals to attend to, and have a valuable ‘pattern' to match them against, then instinctive decisions will have a higher probability of paying off. In circumstances where fast decisions are required, experienced intuition can short-circuit ‘analysis paralysis' and get to great answers, fast.

Leaders who have broad experience and can ‘cut to the chase' to make fast, accurate decisions in the face of seeming uncertainty based on their capability to select the right cues can add enormous value to a situation.

Where it doesn't

However, leaders often get in the habit of relying on intuitive responses to problems, and leap to instinctive conclusions. Where situations are novel (such as where disruption has occurred, there have been changes in the circumstances that we are not aware of, or novelty exists), the leader can ‘believe' that they have the right answer, even when they miss vital cues from the environment that they are not used to paying attention to, or the pattern that they use to match the scenario to is incorrect. This encourages leaders to make poor calls, bad risk decisions and to ignore important information that may have enriched or guided the decision.

As a leader, we should trust our intuition only within its bounds of experience. Beyond this, we are likely to miss vital information, act before fully clarifying circumstances, and use incorrect patterns to solve problems (and end up with poor outcomes).

What can you do?

  • Trust your gut enough to ask good questions
  • Use intuition where there is experience, and ignore it where there is novelty
  • Don't replace quality decision making with intuition, charisma or bias
  • Ask yourself if you are in your experience zone, or if there is novelty that needs to be considered
  • If you get a gut response, take it for what it is — not the ‘answer’ but a way of seeing the situation through your established patterns. Testing your patterns and reasons is the next important step