“What’s The GUT got to do with it?”

A Leaders Guide to Effectively Using Intuition

By Katherine L. Poehnert, M.Ed. Psych., PCC

Whether you are a manager, a supervisor, a CEO, or anyone in a position of leadership (and I happen to believe that we are all in those positions in some form), intuition is a critical and often maligned skill in our leadership toolbox.

Very often, we are called upon to make decisions with very little rational information or data at our disposal, and for many people, the uncertainty of this can be incredibly intimidating and even down right scary! This may be particularly true for those leaders who are very concrete and need to have specific and often measurable information in order to ‘correctly’ make a ‘rational decision,’ especially one that may strongly impact others.

Intuition has in the past been considered to be primarily in the domain of feminine skills, such as ‘women’s intuition,’ and most of us have been taught that this skill is unreliable, unnecessary and maybe even harmful! But…

A subtle shift is beginning to occur in the boardrooms and offices of corporate America -if you listen carefully you will notice the faint whisperings of a new paradigm.  Traits that have always come naturally to women are now beginning to be recognized and valued, rather than diminished and minimized as soft skills or ‘fluff.’ In fact, in a Harvard study of 13,000 executives, it was found that 80% of their success was self-credited to right-brain intuition, and a study at Shell Oil found intuitive decision-making processes at the highest levels of the organization, in fact there is a suggestion that the proportion of executives who favor intuitive decision making tends to increase with seniority.

These are only a couple of many studies showing the same conclusions and the latest brain research suggests that it is almost impossible to make purely rational-based decisions, as it tends to be feelings and not logic that are the drivers of decision making.

Question MarkSo what exactly is intuition, and why should I care about it?

Intuition has three primary languages, one of which is feelings (the other two being patterns and pictures). Most of us have been correctly taught that emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy or greed may be very unhealthy in the workplace. However, there is a big difference between emotions and feelings… the latter of which is vitally important to success. Feelings are those senses of ‘fit: or no fit,” those Gut level sensations, intuitive hits and ‘aha’ or lightbulb moments (yes, they sometimes feel like momentary bolts of electricity!) that seem to come to us from some unknown place (usually while showering or driving), and allow us insight into a perplexing problem or tough decision with which we are wrestling.

The interesting thing about intuition is that it can be very hard to define in logical, rational terms (makes sense!), because it tends to be an inner ‘knowing’ that defies total understanding. In fact, the famous Psychotherapist Carl Jung has said about intuition:

“it is a sort of perception which does not go exactly by the senses, but it goes via the unconscious, and, at that, I leave it and say ‘I don’t know how it works.'”

We do, however know that “gut feelings” tend to have three significant traits:

  • They Appear quickly in the unconscious
  • We are not fully aware of underlying reasons
  • They are strong enough to act upon

In reading this, you are probably recognizing and remembering the times you have felt this inner wisdom, this intuition, but may still not trust its use. So here are some of the occasions in which it might be helpful to call upon intuition’s intelligence:

  • Deciding whom to hire: who might be “right” for the job (external to how they look on paper)
  • Finding faults in a product or system that have previously gone undetected
  • Finding the right words to mend a relationship, or motivate others (coming from the heart rather than the head)
  • Stopping yourself from entering a risky situation or deal
  • You may see yourself as very intuitive, or perhaps you wish to increase this capacity in yourself. To help you determine the extent to which you currently rely on intuition in your decision making, consider the following questions:

How much do I rely on intuition?

You may see yourself as very intuitive, or perhaps you wish to increase this capacity in yourself. To help you determine the extent to which you currently rely on intuition in your decision making, consider the following questions:

  1. Do you trust hunches, and gut feelings when making important decisions?
  2. Do you notice feelings in your body telling you a decision is right or wrong?
  3. Do you trust initial impressions of a person or situation?
  4. Do you trust your experience when arriving at a conclusion, even if you cannot explain the reasons why?

(Adapted from 2004 Sadler-Smith, and Shefy, 81)

How can I increase my use of intuition?

It is important to remember that, while developing intuitive skills is important, we encourage our clients to learn to use both the analytical, rational side of the brain in harmony with intuitive intelligence.   When dealing with uncertainty, many of us tend to over-analyze information, and often get stuck in the sabotaging cycle of ‘analysis paralysis’ and because we cannot articulate, quantify, touch or count intuitive information, we often discount it.  It is critical, however, to build trust and skill in this area. Intuition is like a muscle, and it needs to be exercised in order to gain in strength.Here are a few whole-brain activities to help stimulate intuition and insight

Reflective practices

  • Journaling: Noting important experiences allows leaders to reflect on feelings related to these experiences and connect them with Journalingvalues, experiences, and goals.
  • Imaging: Ex: Imagine walking down a path while thinking about your challenging situation, as the path breaks into several smaller paths, each representative of possible solutions, notice how you feel as you attempt to walk down each one.- how does it affect you? How would it feel 5 years from now? (Academy of Management Executive-2004 Vl 18, No4) This is creating a mental picture, thinking visually. The more you are able to think in images, the more likely you are to increase intuitive processes.
  • Dream recollection: When you dream, analytical thinking is suspended; giving you access to more intuitive thought. Images and metaphors may give answers to challenges.
  • Play devil’s advocate
  • Seek feedback from others on your intuitive judgments  

As leaders, it is important to make sure that we have an adequate balance between our rational thinking and our intuitive intelligence. For many, that may be a bit skewed towards reliance on the certainty of data, and concrete information, but when faced with uncertainty, the wisdom of the intuitive mind can allow critical information to come through to help impact the decision-making process. As Einstein once said:

“The Intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Let’s remember and honor that gift!!

For more work on developing and trusting your intuition in business, schedule a consultation with Kathy.