The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

IntuitionYou run the numbers, debate the pros and cons, talk to others, and now it’s time to make the decision. It should be obvious but something holds you back. There’s a tug in your gut as you struggle with an intangible feeling that there’s more to this decision than meets the eye. What do you do? Do you rationalize the facts and plow forward? Or, do you give in to the gut feel and look for the source of your unease?

Of the 77 executives and leaders I interviewed about intuition in a decision-making process, many struggled with this scenario, but most ultimately went with their gut.

Why do we struggle to use that nudge as a legitimate part of our decision-making process? Why do we not pause to listen to feelings…in a skillful way? Two words: trust and credibility.

Trust. Logic is in charge for those in business, law, finance, engineering and other similar professions. We hear, “There’s no place for feelings at work” because decisions should be fact-based, rational and explainable. I don’t disagree, but particularly for complex decisions – there’s more to it than that. Nonetheless, the notion persists that feelings are bad. The executives and leaders I interviewed learned to skillfully use and trust their intuition or gut feel.

For example, one business executive learned to notice when something was bugging her. Some others described a nagging feeling that got in the way of their decision-making. Consistently, all of the leaders explained the nagging feeling signaled them to dig into the issue further. The CEO of a construction materials company, for example, said, “Intuition pushes me to ask questions. I get a feeling that there’s more to the story and that pushes me to ask questions and explore.” A less skilled person would shove away the nagging feeling and, instead seeks out more data in the search for logic.

So how do we learn to trust our intuition? The primary way – at least for now – is through experience. Many executives I know have learned that feelings carry information from less accessible parts of the brain…if they listen. To deny gut feel is to deny intelligence. A state transportation director explained, “The first couple of times you rely on your intuition, it’s just very unnerving and unsettling because you’re trained as an engineer to follow the facts and as you make a couple of those decisions and it turns out that they were correct, it gives you a little more courage to say, ‘I need to listen to my intuition more.’”

Overall, they learned through trial and error, which is an expensive and time-consuming way to learn. My hope is that we learn to appreciate the skilled use of feeling as another input into the decision-making process and talk about it openly. For now, it is a matter of practicing and learning on the job.

Credibility. Intuition has a credibility problem. The men and women I interviewed expressed an unwillingness to talk about intuition in a business setting. Instead, some executives noted that they would find the decision felt just right (combining fact and feeling), and then line up data to support the decision. The data provided an understandable way to explain their decision to others. Most women executives who I interviewed wanted nothing to do with “women’s intuition” as they perceived it to be a credibility killer in the workplace. They used incorporated intuition in the decision-making process, but they weren’t overt about it. How do we overcome the credibility problem?

Part of the credibility gap, I believe, can be bridged when we understand the neuroscience behind intuition. Today, thanks to neuroscience, we know that ignoring feelings is impossible and unwise. Feelings are not woo-woo, but rather a practical leadership tool. This is a skilled, self-aware decision-making approach not a willy-nilly use of the next whim that pops into your head.

Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor said, “Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures who feel, biologically we are feeling creature who think.” It is my hope that by bringing more awareness to the power that the brain holds and how to harness it, we can close the credibility gap and use more insightful intelligence to solve complex problems faster and more effectively. Let’s develop the experience and skill to trust intuition and to give it the credit that it is due.

This CEO of a national nonprofit summarized it this way, “… intuition is real and at a certain level you’ve got to trust it. It has a place in decision making, just as rational thinking does or research does or other things that may influence the decision.”

Bolte-Taylor, Jill. My Stroke of Insight. Penguin Group, 2006.

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