After 75 interviews with leaders, it’s clear. Leaders rely on intuition for decision-making in complex situations. Making decisions in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty is part of the job. There is neither the ability to know all the facts nor time to find enough data. Leaders use intuition or gut feel to complement fact and cognitive processing. On this, there is little debate. But here’s the problem.
The interviews also revealed that the majority of leaders– particularly those in technical, legal, financial or other fact-based fields – don’t talk about intuition even though they rely on it. “Intuition” has a bad rap. It is viewed as woo-woo, wacko, touchy-feely and certainly not legitimate. Leaders – especially women– fear jeopardizing their credibility if they talk about intuition.
Here’s the other problem. When I ask how to develop intuition in themselves and others, they say, “Talking about it openly during decision-making.” So, how do we bridge the gap between talking and not talking about this essential skill?
Here are four ways to talk about intuition in a work setting.
1. Discuss the intangibles. Part of leadership decision-making is making the implicit explicit. Intangible considerations can and should be raised. Leaders discuss context, the tenor of conversations, perceptions, political winners and losers. You can ask: “Who cares about this issue?” “What are their perceptions?” “How will they feel about it?” Intuition incorporates these factors through in internal calculus that provides a feel for a decision.
2. Use other words. In my leadership interviews, 27% used intuition, 23% used gut feel and 19% used instinct. Women more so than men referred to gut feel in order to avoid being associated with “women’s intuition.” Leaders use other ways to code an intuitive feel. They talk about sweaty palms, butterflies in their stomach, or they are hot under the collar or squirm in their chair. These accepted phrases illustrate a felt sense that underlies intuition.
3. Label feelings. To name a feeling somehow makes it safer in a workplace discussion. In my office, I frequently ended meetings by asking participants how they felt about the outcome and immediately making it a multiple-choice answer. It sounds like this. “How do you feel about the results of the meeting? Comfortable, uncomfortable, satisfied, worried or concerned?” It’s better to air those feelings in the room rather than in the hallway. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely the same as intuition, but it’s a technique that surfaces feelings in an acceptable way.
4. Just say it. Honestly – let’s stop the pretense and acknowledge what we know, intuitively – and that science is beginning to show. We – our brain, heart, guts and body combined – are a powerful, complex sensing tool. Yes, we think, but we do so much more. One leader said to me, “My role is to make space at the table for the person who says, ‘This just doesn’t feel right.’” That is real, legitimate and powerful. It’s time to call it like it is – intuition.
Focusing. Eugene Gendlin. Random House, 2003 (first published by Everest House, 1978).