The Problem with Gut Instinct and Intuition

The Problem with Gut Instinct and Intuition

by
Lewis Garrad

Employee Research and Engagement, Business Segment Leader - Growth Markets at Mercer-Sirota

There seems to be no shortage of evidence to tell us that the way we work is transforming. Some have even gone as far as to say that the changes we are seeing now are even more dramatic than those that occurred during the last industrial revolution more than 100 years ago.

For many leaders, these shifts have brought considerable opportunities to revamp stale business models – increasing digitisation[1], flexibility and opening up products and services to a global market place.  But with these big opportunities also come big challenges. In our most recent review of survey results from nearly 100 organisations across the globe, 4 in 10 senior leaders do not see their organisation keeping up with changes in their business environment. Even more troublesome, half of middle managers we surveyed also felt the same way.

To support leaders through this turbulent time, HR functions have started to take advantage of the new tools that are available from the online world – using data and analytics to bring more rigour to leadership and management decisions. Many have started to invest heavily in new programmes and teams that bring together management scientists and HR practitioners to tackle real business problems[2].

So why is it then that so many organisations still find that leaders would rather make decisions, particularly about people, based on their experience rather than what the data suggest? The answer is probably a simple one - it’s because leaders are human and they are shaped by experiences. Many develop their own ideas about why people act as they do. They enjoy a compelling story that fits with their view of the world and are very good at ignoring evidence that contradicts it. This often creates a tough task for HR professionals who are asked to bring more insight with data but find that it doesn’t align with popular opinion.

In response to this problem, management scientists like Adam Grant[3], Jeffery Pfeffer[4] and Rob Briner[5] have started to encourage leaders to put down their intuition and to think in a more evidenced based way. The idea is that different sources of evidence can be brought together to help make better decisions[6]. This means considering professional experience and stakeholder opinion but also internal organisation data and scientific literature to help guide day to day practice.

So, what are the implications for leaders and HR? To start, probably three things:

  • Recognise your own biases. Confident leaders often back their own opinions when it comes to making tough decisions. It’s great to be decisive but over reliance on a strongly held intuition can be dangerous. Many studies have shown that people prefer to validate their own views rather than accept evidence to the contrary. Understanding this is essential to being able to make more evidence based decisions.
     
  • Seek more negative feedback. Feedback is vitally important to help decision making in areas where a leader’s own views are not aligned to what others see or feel. Focusing on understanding diverse perspectives can help build stronger self-awareness and help to improve decision making. 

    Interestingly, this idea isn’t aligned with many management trends. In recent years there has been a real shift in companies to eliminate negative feedback and focus on positive messages for managers and employees. The problem is that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this harms performance[7] more than helps it. Finding out what people don’t like is still just as important as finding out what they do like.

  • Challenge personal assumptions more often. As noted above, people are good at filling in the reasons for things with their own ideas – but if leaders want to be evidence based then they need to challenge this practice more often. For example, there is a great deal of focus on millennial talent at the moment – perhaps because leaders feel disconnected with newer generations joining the workforce. However, much of the evidence suggests that young people today are remarkably similar to the young people of 20 years ago. What’s really changed is the context in which they are entering the workplace – the faster and more interconnected world. Organisations should be careful not to attribute the cause of management challenges to the wrong things because of deeply held assumptions.

    For HR to truly succeed in its transformation into a data driven and analytically based function, leaders need to be ready. Without a transformation in leadership and management thinking, a more rigorous approach to people management will always be out of sight.

[1] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-transformation-hr-even-part-conversation-laurence-smith

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0090261615000443

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/on-leadership/why-this-wharton-wunderkind-wants-leaders-to-replace-their-intuition-with-evidencewhy-this-wharton-wunderkind-wants-leaders-to-replace-intuition-with-evidence/2016/04/08/8013a662-fc02-11e5-9140-e61d062438bb_story.html

[4] http://mobile.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/jobs/04pre.html

[5] http://www.cebma.org/wp-content/uploads/Evidence-Based-Practice-The-Basic-Principles-vs-Dec-2015.pdf

[6] http://www.cebma.org/faq/evidence-based-management/

[7] https://hbr.org/2016/01/strengths-based-coaching-can-actually-weaken-you

[8] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-transformation-hr-even-part-conversation-laurence-smith [from standfirst]

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