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Xmas crackers: Intuition as a business tool


Use your intuitionHow often have you failed to trust your gut instinct, only to wish you had? It's one thing to be instinctive in your personal life, quite another to use it at work. Jan Hills discusses how developing and using intuition can help when making complex and strategic decisions.

Many people may feel that intuition has little or no place in business, that decisions should be made on cold hard fact rather than on trusting your gut. But there is increasing evidence that intuition is more than just a feeling; many scientists now believe that it is in fact the result of our brains piecing together information and experiences to come to different, and less obvious solutions and conclusions – and if this is the case it could be that listening to gut feelings is the difference that makes a difference in the best HR business partners (HRBPs).

People often separate intuition from logic, believing logic to be the superior approach in making business decisions. Some companies have gone as far as to rely on the techniques of business schools and consultants that encourage people to focus solely on logic, using formulas and specifically devised patterns during the decision making process.

Methods such as 'decision trees' have been devised to allow people to follow step-by-step guides for every business decision. But we are not robots; the most successful business people surely rely on more than just fixed processes to do their jobs, and indeed techniques such as this ignore the creative and human part of decision-making.

"No high level or complex business decision is made without some degree of intuition - and to begin to make use of this invaluable business tool, we just need to recognise what our intuition is telling us."

Jan Hills, HR With Guts

A number of recent studies have shown that intuition plays a strong part in what leads people toward the decisions they make. Recent publications including The Wayward Mind by Guy Claxton, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Social Intelligence by Daniel Goldman, are beginning to find that decision-making and intuition are inextricably linked.

What is your intuition telling you?

Findings such as these are discovering that the brain stores lots of information and makes thousands of connections between those pieces of information. It is these connections that might not be made in our conscious mind and can lead to those 'ah-ha' moments that give us a strong intuitive feeling about a situation. I would even go as far as to say that no high level or complex business decision is made without some degree of intuition - and to begin to make use of this invaluable business tool, we just need to recognise what our intuition is telling us.

During my research with different HRBPs, I have found that intuition comes to people in different ways; some people get an uneasy or positive feeling, for others it's more of a physical sensation or a feeling in their gut. Some even have an actual image pop into their head.

We all know that the roles within HR are changing. HRBPs are now expected to provide strategic business solutions rather than the more process-led administrative tasks found before the Ulrich model. And this means that HRBPs are in the perfect position to develop and use their intuition, as they can no longer rely on formulas and procedures that can be followed to the letter. There are no hard-and-fast rules anymore and a successful HRBP needs the confidence to trust their gut instinct when making complex decisions.

Intuition is like a muscle; it gets better as you train it. For a long time in business the industry has been blocking it, but now we need to practice using it. If we are going to start using our intuition, we need to learn how to use it properly. There are some simple techniques that can help:

Acknowledge that intuition will play a role in your decision-making process
Use your intuition as the starting point that can lead you in the right direction when making a decision. For example, if you have a gut feeling that a line manager hasn't been straight forward with an employee who has a performance issue, you can use this intuitive feeling as the initiator that leads you to research the situation further.

Monitor effectiveness
Keep a record of when you had an intuitive feeling or thought and look back at how often you were right. People who are sceptical about using intuition often just remember the times when they were wrong.

"The best HRBPs do not act blindly on intuition without considering the other options, but often use intuition as their guide to find the right course of action."

Let others know it's ok to use their intuition
If a person has a feeling during a meeting which relates to a particular point, they might not mention it because at that time they didn't have the data to support it. It is important to let people know that they can (and should) voice these feelings as this could highlight concerns that all the team are feeling and/or help to identify any problems.

From our research, we have found that the best HRBPs do not act blindly on intuition without considering the other options, but often use intuition as their guide to find the right course of action; is this the right candidate? Is this the right time to suggest an idea to a manager? Intuition is the starting point to find out more.

Intuition and recruitment

Many companies have spent time and resources putting together carefully structured interview and recruitment plans. It is easy to see that it would be frustrating if these policies were being side-stepped by line managers who were recruiting candidates on intuition. But rather than trying to take intuition out of the recruitment process, HR should be allowing room within the process to rely more on intuition by training people to use it more effectively.

During our training programmes with line managers, the discussions on interview techniques revealed that many, if not most, of the line managers relied heavily on intuition when recruiting. Rather than trying to fight this, we created a training session to help them use their intuition more effectively.

This included contrast analysis where we asked people to remember the signals they received when they had a positive or negative intuitive feeling about a past situation. We asked them to think of a time when they had a good intuitive feeling about something that turned out to be right and got them to think about the signals they got – how did their intuition tell them? This exercise was then repeated for a negative feeling and any differences were noted. Each person experiences intuition in a different way and by learning how to recognise the signs, they were able to use their intuition more effectively.

The key point is that once you have an intuitive feeling, it is important to remember that it is just a starting point and should not be the only component of the decision-making process. The situation or topic must be researched further to find support for or (just as importantly) to disprove the intuitive feeling to avoid making biased or ill-informed decisions.

For example, in an interview, if your intuition is telling you that there is an area that doesn't quite add up – ask the candidate more questions about that particular topic. Intuition, although not the only part, is a very important part of decision-making. Intuition can be the niggling thought that leads you to dig deeper, make an extra call to a client or spot patterns that may have gone unnoticed. And ultimately intuition can be the difference that makes a difference when you need to meet the challenge of driving the business forward in new and exciting ways.

Jan Hills is from HR With Guts.

This article was first published in February 2008


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