How long has it been since you’ve had a tough decision to make at work? I bet it happens regularly, if it is not on a daily basis. Sure, making decisions can be exhilarating, but it can also be draining. Sometimes dreadful.
Your pulse accelerates, you start to sweat, your mind jumps from one point to the next, hoping to settle on something. You really want to make the right decision for you, for your team, for your organization. But often times, it can be a tough call. You wish you had the perfect step-by-step recipe to get to the right decision.
Well, in fact, decision-making is quite a complex process for everyone. So much that it is a very popular topic in management research.
For decades, academics have observed and interviewed successful senior leaders to understand and model the thought process that take them to the right decision. These studies resulted in the inescapable rational process. Which we are all very aware of.But what if there was a better way to make decisions that doesn’t just rely on rational thinking?
The problem with rational thinking
We are trained from an early age to develop our rational abilities. We are taught to systematically gather the relevant data, to analyze it, to design options and evaluate them, until we make the final decision. It is as a slow process requiring conscious and sustained effort. Our rational thinking make progress step by step and draws a logical conclusion. And that’s great. Indispensable.
I couldn’t agree more. I hold a Bachelor of Mathematics, and a scientific Master’s degree in Management. My natural preference is rational thinking. However, I must admit that rational thinking can be wrong. Or jammed, unable to decide.
I mean, do you always have enough time to gather data, analyze, evaluate options and decide? Do you always have all the data that is necessary? Does it sometimes happen, on the contrary, that you have so much data that it is overwhelming and you can no longer distinguish the forest from the trees? What if there was another way?
Rational thinking is not your only option
Senior leaders realize, and researchers have found out, that all decisions are not, or are not only, based on rational thinking. Decision-making also leverages … intuitive thinking. Smart leaders consider their intuitions — in addition to their rational analysis — when making decisions.
And the truth is, leaders consider their intuitions — in addition to their rational analysis — when making decisions:
“90% of the 60 leaders who participated in a study reported using their intuition in combination with rational data analysis. They found that their decisions were accelerated, and were better.” (Burke, Miller, 1999)
“Managers at the top of every [of the 2000] organizations surveyed scored higher than middle or lower-level managers on their ability to use their intuition to guide their key decisions.” (Agor, 1986)
This is a well-kept secret, isn’t it? I bet you rarely hear someone at work trying to convince you that this decision is better because his instinct says so. We would rather emphasize the extensive research and analysis we have done to give credibility to our decision.
However, it doesn’t mean that intuition is not instrumental to the process. So, let me explain what intuition is, exactly.
Neuroscience understands that the human brain thinks in two different ways. There’s the rational process, as described above, and the intuitive process. The latter is not esoteric, magical, nor is it about a premonition.
Intuitions are the conclusions that spontaneously raise to your consciousness, without you being aware of the intermediate stages — although it is often possible to justify your intuition after the fact.
Imagine meeting someone for the first time. Within a blink of the eye, you have an opinion of the person. That’s an intuition. And, contrarily to reason, intuition is incredibly fast. Intuitions are conveyed to your consciousness by your emotions. The first thing that comes to mind is the feelings you have for this person. You like or dislike, you trust or you don’t.
Rather than dissecting information, the intuitive process of the brain makes connections almost instantaneously based on your experiences. By analogy and association, it synthesizes and jumps to conclusions. Beneath the surface, when you meet this person for the first time, your brain finds similarities with people you’ve known in the past, and concludes.
Intuition is thus essentially based on the knowledge accumulated through your experiences, all too often forgotten, and on the models of the world that you have created for yourself, of which you are often not aware of. You may or may not realize that this person in front of you reminds you of the type of people you don’t trust, as an example.
In fact, because it is spontaneous and effortless, intuition is the way of thinking that drives the majority of the decisions you make in a day. If the stakes are not high, intuition will prevail, it is so much easier and efficient. Whether you are conscious of it or not. Whether you like it or not.
Here are a few examples:
You slow down your car in traffic, because you instinctively understand that the car on the other lane is trying to cut you off.
You pick clothes in your closet that feel comfortable if you don’t have an official meeting today. You don’t need to rationally think over your choice.
You accept an invitation without hesitation because it feels exciting and you have time. No need for some complex thinking here either.
Does that mean you should always listen to your intuition?
Now, is this to say that your intuition is always right? Sorry, it is not the case. The quality of your intuitions depends on the quality of the knowledge you hold, and thus of your learning.
In fact, as you are getting experienced in your job, as you face numerous situations and overcome challenges, you develop mental models on the appropriate ways to react. That’s called expert intuition. It explains why senior people can make decision swiftly, without hesitation, and without a long rational process.
Your expertise may not only be related to your job. You can also be an expert in human relations, for example. If you have always been fascinated by people, and an avid observer of good and not-so-good interactions, you may intuitively know how to react with difficult people or situations.
However, a word of caution. Intuition can also tap into your biases and your fears. In those occasions, intuition could be wrong, and it is really difficult to tell when this happens. Intuitions, at the end of the day, are no more no less than assumptions. That’s why engaging both rational thinking and intuitive thinking is so important.
How smart people use intuition to make the best decisions
Let’s say you are in a restaurant. You read the menu, and choose one food rather than another according to how you feel about it. It is then your intuitive process that intervenes, without real awareness of what leads you to that choice.
That being said, if you are following a particular diet, you may rule out your initial choice. You can be the impartial observer of your feelings. You can decide to slow down for a second and have your rational thinking intervene to choose more proper food for you. You have a veto power over your intuitions.
The same holds true for decisions made in a professional context, even for the most rational of us. You have intuitions, and you have rational thoughts.
Let me ask you a question: When you have a decision to make, how would you describe your typical thought process?
You spontaneously have a feeling of what the right decision is, and then you engage your rational thinking to confirm whether or not your intuition is right. That is called strategic intuition.
You first collect data, you analyze it, you evaluate your options, you make a rational decision and then you stop for a moment to perceive how you feel about the decision. That’s called conclusive intuition.
Strategic intuition and conclusive intuition are both efficient. But it speaks to your natural preference, and to the level of experience you hold. The more experience, the more mental models you developed over time, and the easiest it is for your brain to make connections and associations, and thus generate intuitions.
In both instances, integrating intuition and reason increases dramatically the potential for you to make the right decision.
Intuition is really an assumption your brain makes based on your experience. Relying solely on your intuition could be risky, unless you don’t have the time to analyze the situation rationally — for example, in the middle of a heated discussion, or a particularly stressful situation.
Depending solely on your reason is also suboptimal. Your brain has the capacity to detect information beneath the surface which could have a crucial impact on your decision. Ignoring it could lead you to the wrong conclusion.
The more you navigate between the two processes, the more knowledge you tap into, the better the decisions, and the more you can adapt to circumstances. You can decide how much you rely on one or the other — or both. It is a matter of choice, and practice.
Make the best use of your brain’s powers to make smart decisions
Imagine that going forward, you listen to the little voice inside of you, in addition to proceeding systematically, rationally.
Imagine that going forward, you navigate between your reason and your intuition. You dig deeper into your feelings, the voice of your intuition, and challenge your reason. Similarly, you observe impartially feelings that arise, take a step back, and apply your veto if you know better.
Navigating between your reason and your intuition, you tap into the knowledge you are aware of at a conscious level, and also into the wisdom you hold beneath the surface. Chances are that you will make better informed decisions, even if time is short, data is insufficient, or contradictory.
As a senior leader once told me:This will make the difference between a potential of success, and an assured failure.
This article is based on the research I performed for my Master’s thesis (2017). The full bibliography includes over 100 articles and books, of which: