This is how you rely on your intuition

As organizations become more and more autonomous, their leaders have to learn how to let go and rely more on their intuition. But is intuition a safe advisor? Five pieces of advice for intuitive management.

With the shift towards autonomy in many organizations, the role of management is changing. After all, what characterized command and control was just that – the fact that managers had a lot of control. They knew what everyone was doing and were able to modify processes wherever necessary. Now that professionals are being given greater autonomy, the capacity to control has been markedly curtailed.

It means that letting go and trusting are among the skills that new managers must acquire. The same goes for listening to intuition. It is no longer the case that all information flows end with the manager, who has an overview of each stage of the process. During MBA courses, for example, managers are trained to operate according to the compass of parameters, process descriptions, and spreadsheets. Autonomy does not sit well with spreadsheet management – the gut feeling that an autonomous employee is suited to his task is sometimes the only compass a manager still has.

Intuition as an advisor

But is intuition not a dangerous advisor? It depends. Five tips for sensible use of intuition.

1. Know the limitations of reason

Our self-image as sane people gives us an automatic trust in reason. Taking a decision means setting out the arguments and carrying out what appears to be the best option. That is how we have been taught to do things, and we have had plenty of opportunity to see that it works. However... it does not always work.

Psychologists have warned about the limitations of reason. Research into the brain shows that decisions are taken in the prefrontal cortex, which has limited capacity. If a decision involves a limited number of considerations, everything is fine, but if there are many factors that play a role, the bigger picture is lost. “Our rational thinking runs in series,” said Bernhard Hommel, professor of psychology at Leiden University, in a previous edition of Management Team. “We can only ever keep one subject at a time in our heads. We can shift our focus to other subjects incredibly quickly, but only ever one by one.”

The word intuition refers primarily to thought processes elsewhere in the brain which, although they occur unconsciously, are no less valuable for that. The limbic system, for example, which lies near the brain stem, processes information very rapidly into something that is not recognized as a conscious decision, but which does produce a strong responsive feeling. This feeling steers our behavior, and it is often a good idea to listen to it. If we are in danger, then the limbic system ‘knows’ it earlier than does our conscious thought processes, and puts our bodies into a state of alertness without our knowing why.

The limitations of reason are particularly noticeable with complicated choices where many alternatives are available. In a survey held at IKEA, customers making their way through stores at very busy times were followed, and subsequently interviewed. Those customers who made their choices the most quickly were, afterwards, not less but actually more satisfied about what they had bought. Their feelings had obviously led them to the right products.

2. Know the limitations of intuition

Our intuition often seems to know exactly what we should do, without our understanding how we came to such a decision. There even seems to be a magical or transcendental element at play – ‘the stars’ point the way. It is more likely that the brain centers that are situated away from the domain of our active consciousness (such as the limbic system, referred to elsewhere) show us the way.

But just as we make mistakes in calculations and errors of judgement, the unconscious processes can get things wrong too. Moreover, it is not easy to interpret their signals. When we are looking for a new house, are we charmed by a particular property because our intuition is better able to weigh up various needs and desires and gives a positive view? Or is it because we are weary of looking and are happy to have found somewhere that is at least reasonable? Psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis has shown that people buying a house often fall in love with their new home straight away and then play down any disadvantages (such as longer traveling times).

This does not mean that intuition is less valuable, but only if you take the trouble to check the messages it is sending. In the case of complicated considerations, for example, it is advisable to entertain contradictions from team members or to engage a devil’s advocate in order to give greater substance to the intuitive thought process. If you approach this seriously, and if ‘it’ still feels right afterwards, then it is time to turn the red light green.

3. Keep an eye on your energy level

If we want to clearly recognize the information provided by our intuition, then it is important that we properly absorb the feelings we have. “Your body is a powerful intuitive communicator,” writes Judith Orloff, author of standard work, ‘Second Sight’. Examples of physical signals include a weak stomach feeling or headache. Diminishing levels of energy are generally also a useful signal. Orloff explains, “If you are with someone and your energy level falls, you should not ignore it.” It is a sign that the circumstances require more energy than they are providing.

Physical signals can be traced back, in part, to the same limbic system. If we are in a situation where we experience a certain tension (even if we are not aware of the fact), that system responds by producing stress hormones. Our heart-rate goes up and we feel the need to become angry or walk away. If we repress these signals, we eventually become exhausted.

In the case of major decisions, whose long-term consequences cannot be foreseen, the ‘good feeling’ is often the only valid source of information that remains. Researcher Jonah Lehrer advises listening to this when choosing a life partner, for example. With regard to decisions of great significance, Lehrer advises thinking about them less, not more.

4. Be careful not to let things get too cozy

What complicates things is that ‘a good feeling’ can be a dangerous source of information as well as a valuable one, especially in a social context. ‘Relatedness’, or the feeling of belonging to a group, is one of our most important drivers to affect our judgement. The fact that the group is in agreement gives us a feeling that the information must be true – a phenomenon also known as groupthink.

Groupthink is often reinforced by confirmation bias – our tendency, once we have formed an opinion, to look for information that backs it up. After all, that reaffirms our image as rational and smart beings. The most important remedy against both groupthink and confirmation bias is organized contradiction. If the atmosphere in the group gets just a bit too cozy, with everyone agreeing with everyone else, then the alarm bells should start ringing.

5. Keep your ego in check

Your ego, too, is a significant disruptive influence when interpreting intuitive signals. Any undermining of your status causes stress, diminishing your capacity to weigh up considerations in a dispassionate manner. It ensures that certain intuitions (‘hey, that’s a good idea!’) are not picked up. Especially if it was not your idea. Ways of suppressing the powerful voice of your ego are listening to those around you, putting things into perspective, and humor.

Source: This article is part of the ‘Nieuw Leiderschap’ file on This file is from De Baak.

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