Why don’t we trust intuition?

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

When facing a key decision at work, when was the last time someone asked you how you felt about it? Not a request for your general emotional state, but a genuine enquiry as to what your feelings were saying about what course of action to take? “Never mind the data and the facts, tell me what your gut says?”

My guess is that it happens rarely if ever. Which is odd when you consider how important instinct and feelings are in making decisions. In fact, debate rages in the neuroscience community about the extent to which free will exists in decision making, or whether decision making is partly or wholly determined by the sub-conscious and past experiences — our minds then apply an illusion of conscious decision post hoc. The idea that our decisions aren’t entirely free can seem terrifying.

Pro athletes rely on intuition

Sometimes, we combine conscious and unconscious decision making to produce exceptional outcomes. Professional athletes who play sports like football, cricket, tennis and baseball appear to have incredible reaction times and decision making. In fact, if a top-level tennis player were always making conscious decisions about how to return a serve, it would be almost impossible to hit it. Instead, a combination of an automatic system (sub-conscious) and a conscious system, work together to decide what to do. And these systems do this by using past experience as a guide, while the athlete is completely ignorant of all of it.

This is why professional athletes talk about being in flow and are often unable to recount their thinking in a key moment — because there was no thinking, or at least not enough to register. Their limbic system takes over, relying on thousands or even millions of data points from years of practice and competition and compares it to current events: the specific shape of the opponent’s body, the weather conditions, the surface, the way the ball is spinning. It draws on a vast database of past experience. Instinct, or intuition, therefore becomes critical to performance.

What about the workplace?

In a similar way, we actually rely on instincts and intuition enormously in our day to day lives, including at work. Think of the huge number of interactions and information that you encounter on a daily basis — conversations, emails, meetings, teleconferences. You don’t just rely on the pure data exchanged in those settings, you also absorb the tiny signals, visual cues, emotions coming across that say something else — sometimes consciously, but very often sub-consciously. Have you ever come out of a meeting thinking, “Well, they said they’d deliver that piece of work next week, but I just don’t feel they will…”?

So if this is the case, why is it that intuition isn’t as strongly embedded into our everyday work cultures? Why don’t people ask us how we feel about that project or client meeting, instead of asking for the raw facts? Enquiring after feelings is to nudge a person into drawing on hundreds or thousands of hours of not just work experience, but life experience, in the same way a sportsperson draws on their database of past events.

The data bias

One reason, I think, is our modern obsession with measurement and standardisation. Years ago, I was an assessor at a graduate recruitment centre for a large organisation I worked for. Candidates were put through four different exercises and assessments with different assessors and scored against pre-defined criteria. At the wash-up session, we had two candidates with identical scores that were right on the threshold for hiring. However, almost everyone in the room wanted to hire one of the candidates, a young woman, and not the other. Their argument was that she seemed more energetic and fun (someone used the world ‘sparky’), it was the feeling they got from interacting with her. The other candidate, much less ’sparky’ and quite reserved, didn’t give off the same vibe. So the feeling was that only she should be hired. “Who would you rather work with?” the HR representative said.

I objected. I agreed completely that she seemed to have much more charisma and likely to be more fun to be with. But my argument was that if our instincts on personality and cultural fit were important, we should have made them part of the assessment process. Instead, we were retro-fitting what we felt was important after the fact and based on feelings. What feedback could we honestly give the other candidate as to why he didn’t get an offer, that would also be fair to him and the process?

In the end, the senior manager in the room took a day to think on it, and then decided neither candidate should be offered a role.

This story isn’t intended to read as some grand, moral stand by me; in fact, it’s mostly an example of my contrary nature. But I was frustrated at the groupthink in the room, and even more that people were willing to chuck the rulebook out of the window to rely on intuition — but only in this one moment.

Most organisations distrust intuition because it relies on the difficult to examine view of one person and it seemingly has no data to back it up (although the data is, in fact, vast and stored inside the person’s brain). Intuition doesn’t scale, it can’t be audited and is always easy to criticise in hindsight. A bad decision can be excused if someone points at hard data, but if it was based on how they felt at the time, well…..

What I was (unwittingly) arguing for in that assessment centre was a longer-term appraisal of intuition — if we value intuition, we should hold it in high regard all of the time. We should consciously bring intuition into our culture and prize it as an important aspect of decision making and interpersonal relationships. The AI machines are coming, but it will be a long time before they can understand and act on the infinite, tiny data points that humans absorb in a conversation, things like how a flicker of an eyebrow for one specific person might mean scepticism whereas for another it might mean excitement.

The short version of this article.

Intuition is not a mystical power, it’s a skill, a collection of our life experience and learning brought to bear consciously or subconsciously in a single moment. It’s how we decide who to trust, who to love, who to do business with, who to avoid, who to help. It’s in fact, happening all around us, we just don’t allow ourselves to talk about it.

So next time there’s a big decision to be made at work, after you’ve reviewed the hard evidence, maybe ask your team and colleagues “What’s your feeling on this one?”

Sign up to my weekly newsletter for a short, curated selection of interesting articles, blogs and podcasts: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/jindy-mann

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Working to make you more selfish. | Coach, Consultant, Author. On a mission to create humane leaders & businesses across the world. www.selfishleader.com

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Jindy Mann

Jindy Mann

Working to make you more selfish. | Coach, Consultant, Author. On a mission to create humane leaders & businesses across the world. www.selfishleader.com

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