There is a little-known, but beautiful song by John Lennon, entitled “Intuition.” In it he sings “Intuition takes me there. Intuition takes me everywhere.” While intuition was, for a long time, the domain of clairvoyants, pop psychologists, mystics and other fringe groups, today, it is an area of cutting-edge research in brain science. The metaphor language for intuition includes “the mind’s eye,” “the sixth sense,” “that little voice,” “hunches,” and “the golden gut,” to name a few.
What is intuition exactly? The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.” It is a keen and quick insight, independent of any reasoning process. In his book, entitled Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, describes intuition as “being in touch with the wisdom of the body.”
He explains that there is a connection between our gut and our right pre-frontal cortex which gives us access to the wisdom stored in our body. The right hemisphere of our pre-frontal cortex receives information from the body, including our heart and our intestines, and uses this input to give us a “heartfelt sense” of what actions to take or a “gut feeling” about the right choice. This integrative function explains how “reasoning, once thought to be a purely logical mode of thinking, is in fact dependent on the non-rational processing of our bodies. Such intuition helps us make wise decisions, not just logical ones.”
You can listen to Dr. Siegel’s brief explanation of this process during his lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, as well as watch his lecture on the topic at Google Tech Talks. As Dr. Siegel explains, intuition is one of the components that contribute to our mental well-being. It is one of the ways of promoting a healthy mind.
While intuition is important in all endeavors, it is particularly important for those in a leadership role. In his seminal book On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis, one of the world’s top 50 business thinkers, makes the most compelling case against our one-dimensional, North American organizational culture which encourages left-brain thinking (logical, analytical, technical) at the expense of more right-brained activities (intuitive, conceptual, synthesized).
Many successful individuals use a whole-brain approach relying on both, their conceptual, intuitive talents as well as their analytical, logical skills. Bennis’s prescription for leaders seizing opportunities is two-fold: first, you must use your instinct to sense it, and then follow the “blessed impulse” (a term borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson describing the vision that shows you in a flash the absolutely right thing to do). According to Bennis, “Everyone has these visions; leaders learn to trust them.” And they accomplish this by trusting their intuition. One of the numerous, successful, individuals Bennis interviewed is Norman Lear who said that “when I’ve been most effective, I have followed that inner voice.” This is the intuition that tells you to trust your own instincts and discount all voices to the contrary.
Here are a few practical tips to enhance our ability to access our intuition:
1. Balance the accumulation of knowledge with a cultivation of wisdom. In our digital world, we are becoming factoid junkies, almost obsessed with accumulating facts and information, about anything and everything, and in particular, about technology. We need to balance hunting for information with an equal emphasis on foraging for a different type of knowledge, which is wisdom—a deep understanding of people, events or situations, to empower us to choose and act wisely. It is the cultivation of wisdom that helps us most in developing our intuition.
Wisdom comes from going beyond accumulating information for its own sake and looking at the value behind the information in helping us create a better world. It involves reflection about our world, connecting with and making an effort to understand the behaviors of those around us, gathering life insights from reading biographies and novels, and exposing ourselves to knowledge outside our area of expertise. It’s moving away from being impermeable and becoming porous by opening up to different influences.
2. Learn from your mistakes. When a mistake occurs, heed the lesson. We can gain insights not only from our own errors in judgment, but from observing others’ errors as well. Mistakes are portals of self-awareness. We strengthen our intuition when we access this powerful, database of wisdom.
3. Include intuition in your decision-making process. Intuition is not infallible. You need to balance it with a rational decision-making approach. However, after you have gone through all the steps in a rational decision making process, revisit your decision by considering your gut reaction and emotional reaction to it. Take a moment to consider others’ emotional reaction to your decision—in particular, the reaction of those who are not cognizant of the logic and reasoning behind the decision.
Also, use one of the most studied rapid decision-making models, known as the Recognition-Primed Decision Model, (RPD) outlined in Gary Klein’s book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. The RPD model uses intuitive decision-making and is discussed in an interesting Fast Company article entitled: What’s Your Intuition? It involves leaders using their experience to quickly evaluate a situation and make fast decisions based on gut feel.
Unlike rational decision making models, which entails generating and comparing alternative options to find the ideal one, this model involves sizing the problem by looking for cues that remind you of past experience and then identifying a solution that has worked in similar situations. Here is a brief summary of its seven steps:
a) Assess the situation (judge it familiar)
b) Evaluate a course of action (imagine how it will be carried out and how it will work out)
c) Select an option (look for the first workable option)
d) Develop a solution set (the set is usually very small)
e) Generate and evaluate options (one at a time; don’t compare them to each other)
f) Adjust the option (spot the weaknesses and find ways to avoid them)
g) Take action (be ready to act, not be paralyzed)
4. Promote intuition in your team. If you are a leader, encourage intuition in others. Do eyes roll over in your team when someone says, “I don’t have any hard evidence, but I have a feeling that this may not be viable”? Rather than dismiss their concerns, prod them to tell you more. This could be a permission pass for everyone else to flex away from a rigid, logical and analytical stance.
5. Lower the stress dial. Stress hinders our performance in every area. It is particularly detrimental when it comes to making wise decisions in bad economic times. Stress lowers our brain’s cognitive and emotional intelligence, thereby eroding our ability to make sound decisions that are balanced with intuitive and rational strategies. Under stress, we may rely too quickly on intuition or become stuck in paralysis by analysis. A newly-released book, The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions—And What to Do About It by Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D., provides some practical strategies for building stress management capacity, cognitive resilience and stress-resilient emotional intelligence. The seven best practices for managing stress, for example, include Awareness, Rest, Support, Exercise, Nutrition, Attitude, and Learning.
If you are interested in knowing what your Intuition Quotient is, you can answer the 20 questions developed by David Cappon of York University. Intuition is an indispensable tool in everyone’s survival kit. When balanced with left-brained analysis, it is a winning formula. From Lord Byron’s beautiful words: “There is no instinct like that of the heart,” to pop singers like Jewel telling us that our “intuition, it’s easy to find, just follow your heart baby,” our intuition whispers to us to listen to more than just our intellect. And now we know that the cardiac connection is not just the stuff of singers and poets.
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.