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, airy-fairy, 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. Surface 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’s their perception?” “How will they feel about it?” Intuition does calculus on these factors and creatively combines them into a feel for a decision.
2. Use code 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 how participants felt about the outcome. I gave them options like comfortable, uncomfortable, satisfied, worried or concerned. 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 come out of the closet. Stop the pretense and acknowledge what we known, 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.
A leader incorporates wisdom from information and intuition into the room. It’s real, true and helpful – although not infallible. If we are to develop future leaders who are insightful and capable of managing complex, ambiguous and uncertain situations, they need to learn, practice and hone their intuitive skills.
Come out of the closet. Let’s call intuition intuition.