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Go With Your Gut: Intuition and Managerial Decision Making

Last Updated: Oct 5, 2022 | Leadership

By Katherine Poehnert, MEd Psych, PCC

Making a choice or decision can be tough for many people, although I did hear that looking into a mirror is good, as it helps to reflect… But, seriously, choices are a part of our every day life. What should I wear today? What is for breakfast? Should I get married? Where do I want to live? What culture do I want to create for my team? Do I want to put people first or do I want to put business first? How do intuition and managerial decision making work together?

Some decisions are  more important than others in terms of the consequences of those choices, but all decisions impact who we are. In fact, author Ken Levine said that “We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.”

Most of us, and particularly those who are seasoned leaders, have likely been taught that rational, logical (maybe even data driven) decisions are always best, and that emotions and “gut ‘‘feelings have no place in our choices and decisions — particularly when we are making very high level decisions that may impact many others.

Thinking, however, has changed. There is a strong recognition that intuition, or what we commonly call gut feelings, is a very important part of any decision-making process. Our subjective judgement always plays a part, whether we recognize it or not.

Go With Your Gut: What is Intuition?

So what is intuition? For many years leaders considered intuition to be rather “woo woo,” and something beyond rationality. However, “Intuitive processing is based on tacit knowledge that has been acquired without attention during a person’s life…” (Bowers et al, 1990). So we are actually “… knowing without knowing why” (Claxton, 1998).

We receive excessive amounts of information on a daily basis. Even though our Reticular Activating System, or RS, helps us to recognize the information that is most important to us, we still have to cut through huge amounts of this information. 

One way we do that is through a type of rapid cognition known as “thin slicing.” Malcom Gladwell says in his book, Blink, that this is “The ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.”

A quote from former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, illustrates this idea. “Sometimes making a decision is hard not because it is unpopular, but because it comes from your gut and defies a ‘technical’ rationale. Much has been written about the mystery of gut, but it’s really just pattern recognition, isn’t it. You’ve seen something so many times you just know what’s going on this time. The facts may be incomplete or the data limited, but the situation feels very, very familiar to you.”

I have known leaders who feel the need to gather reams of data before making a decision, but research shows us that too much information actually gets in our way, and prevents our intuition from helping to inform our decisions. In fact, MRI brain scans actually show that when heavy decisions are being made, and information loads increase, brain activity related to emotional control and decision-making increases until there is often a “short circuit,” and these areas shut down.

Because we are storing patterns, or schemas, in our subconscious throughout our lives, we can utilize them when faced with current situations or decisions that may resemble past situations or decisions. Knowing this takes some of the mystery out of our understanding of a gut feeling, and helps us be more comfortable with using our instincts as a key element in any effective decision-making.

Intuition and Managerial Decision Making

Here are some steps to help you develop your intuition and managerial decision making — or as we have just learned, your pattern recognition! These were developed by writer and researcher Renee Goyeneche, and presented in Forbes Women, in August, 2020.

  1. Notice physical cues in your body.
  • Are you feeling any nausea in your stomach when considering a particular option?
  • Does your rapid heartbeat reflect fear or excitement?
  • How is my energy level when considering a particular option?
  1. Document any “Aha!” moments or flashes.
  • Flashes of insight often show up in a decision making process- write them down. This is also where coaches can be super helpful, as they are trained to help clients gain insight.
  1. Listen.
  • Don’t ignore a feeling you have about a decision. Instead, try to evaluate where that is coming from.
  • Be careful not to confuse fear or a “bad feeling” for intuition, unless you can relate those feelings to real, quantifiable information from past experiences.

Arden Can Help

Making decisions, particularly those that will significantly impact many others, can be a daunting task. If we recognize that intuition and subjective assessments are equally as important as logic and reason, we will be calling on our widest range of resources for gathering information and making healthy decisions. To learn more about intuition and managerial decision making, leadership training and strengthening your critical leadership characteristics, contact Kathy for a consultation.

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