When you shouldn't listen to your instincts at work

Ignoring your intuition is a bad idea, but neglect cold, hard reason at your peril.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 14 Dec 2016
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Your Career

‘She’s perfect on paper but I just don’t know. There’s something lacking. I think he has better instincts.’

Such words may be the stuff of HR directors’ nightmares, but it’s naive to think ‘the gut’ doesn’t feature in recruitment decisions. It features everywhere else. No matter what the scions of data may say, business isn’t a science, it just uses science.

Instinct and intuition play a starring role in the decisions we make, large or small. It could be called experience, vision or commercial acumen, but it’s there, in the office, every day.

Unfortunately, this throws up a host of problems. A terror of public speaking, for example, is instinctive and usually unreasonable, but that makes it no less harmful to your career.

On a more pernicious level, where does instinct end and unconscious bias begin? Maybe you think he has better instincts than she has, because deep down you think men are better decision-makers than women. If you always trust your instincts, you allow such attitudes to remain unchallenged, and that’s good for no one.

Yet we cannot simply throw instinct and intuition out. Business takes place in the realm of imperfect information. You don’t know how people are going to respond to the brand you just launched, or whether your new hire is going to be up to the job, or whether acquisition or a price war is the best way to deal with your insurgent rival.

You can’t know it. You can focus group and test and draw inferences from similar cases, but you cannot use data to make these decisions for you. If the pace of change is indeed becoming ever faster, then the ever-swelling deluge of data threatens to drown us, not sweep us to success. Fast decisions surely require more instinct, not less.

The solution is not to discard intuition then, but to harness it in the service of the rational mind. But as reason and feeling so often clash, how do you know when to listen to which?

The golden rule

‘In general, you can trust your feelings when they are based on learning in stable situations where you got immediate feedback on your actions. When situations are unpredictable, intuition should not be trusted,’ says Rolf Reber, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Oslo and author of Critical Feeling: How to Use Feelings Strategically.

Test pilots, chess masters and accountants can all hone their instincts in this way, while stockbrokers, judges, psychotherapists and personnel selectors cannot.

‘The idea is that a decision has an outcome and we store that outcome together with the decision. Later, after many such decisions, we do not exactly remember what we have done and how it worked out but we feel what the best decision in a given situation is,’ says Reber.

‘A test pilot gets immediate feedback on their actions, as does a chess player. Psychotherapists and personnel selectors have to wait for weeks, months or even years before they see the outcome of their decisions. Stockbrokers may get timely feedback but have to do with volatile markets that make the outcomes of their actions unpredictable.'

The upside is that once you’ve decided you can trust your instincts, you can then train them through practice and feedback, while if you’ve decided they’re actually dangerous distractions, there are things you can do to downplay them.

Take unconscious bias for instance. ‘One way to fight bias is to ask ourselves how we would decide without bias. The disadvantage is that we often do not know by how much we have to correct our judgment. The best way may be to collaborate with those we are biased against. In this case, it is important that it is a collaborative enterprise because a competitive atmosphere may backfire and even strengthen negative feelings against the other group,’ says Reber.

The grey area

So much for trusting intuition. Things get trickier when you can’t be sure how far you can trust your reason. How often, after all, do you have perfect information to compute the perfect decision? Most of the time there is only imperfect information. Reber gives the example of deciding whether to take a new job that pays well, has great hours and a decent salary, but you don’t like the people. It's impossible to model accurately what life after taking that job will look like. 

‘Such doubts should be taken seriously. We could either try out the job or ask ourselves what past experiences might contribute to the doubts we have.’

The secret really is to be aware of the possible limitations of both intuition and reason, of feelings and hard data. You won’t ever be able to get the balance right all the time, but if you approach them strategically, both head and heart can help you make better business decisions.

Image credit: Carsten Tolkmit/Flickr 

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