Intuitive decision making, or making a “gut call”, can deliver successful results if based on relevant experience, knowledge of the situation and emotional intelligence that weighs up the likely outcomes. This short essay will examine the validity and reliability of intuition when making decisions. A comparison will be made of intuitive and analytical decision making traits and demonstrate how close analysis may not increase the chance of a successful outcome.
Intuitive Decision Making
Intuition is an abstract and creative phenomenon an individual uses to piece together a solution that appears to suit the situation. Sinclair and Ashkanasy (2005) gather defining words to illustrate intuitive thought that include non-sequential information, absence of consciousness, non-verbal ideas and use of images and metaphors. Determining an outcome based on intuition relies on a person’s knack to holistically appreciate a situation relying on cognitive (knowledge and understanding) and affective (emotional) domains. These quite opposite interactions highlight a non-logical approach that allows a person to quickly recognise patterns and shape those semblances of information into a solution that seems right. This is similar to an optical illusion where there is a hidden feature within the image; once you see the picture it is hard to not see it.
Intuition becomes more reliable when a person’s experiences become adept to complex, varied situations. Matzler, Bailom and Mooradian (2007) point out that an intuitive decision is not a haphazard choice, rather; it is an individual’s logic that deduces an outcome based on the person’s reliable and proven know-how and expertise. A leader who has a curious nature and grabs opportunities with a view to improve the situation has an increased ability to make a “gut call” that consistently delivers success. It is right for leaders who rely on intuition to bounce their thoughts off others. Confidantes, mentors and trusted advisors should exist within a leader’s network that has been built up over the length of a career. Such a network tests the inquisitive leader’s experience and knowledge to validate the points of decisional reference. Subsequently, the validation they offer may form a benchmark for intuitiveness and can confirm or correct the leader’s thoughts. It must be remembered that not everyone has the uncanny ability to detect an opportunity. On reflection, they may see the missed chance and note it for future decisions. Either way, leaders must apply discipline when making an intuitive decision, or for lesser experienced leaders they should verify the surrounding facts and/or test the idea within their network.
Analytical vs Intuitive Decision Making
Analytical decision making is an alternative and draws upon direct observation, facts and data to decide on the best result. Just as some leaders are more suited to intuition, many leaders are inclined and comfortable to justify decisions that are founded on quantifiable information. This analytical approach is a structured and set piece method to formulate decisions, but limited reference to past experiential successes can reduce the effectiveness of decisions and planning. Nygren and White (2002) offer that adaptive decision makers who switch between an analytical and intuitive approach have an advantage over other leaders. However, they found that when subtasks presented situational complexities, leaders who were stuck in analytical mode displayed poorer performance than the intuitive decision maker. Why is this? Nygren and White unpack the tendencies of the two types and identify the following traits that have an impact when new stimuli are introduced:
Analytical Decision Makers
- Less likely to take a risk
- Not impulsive
- Less likely to take on increased workloads
- Performance orientated
- Learning orientated
- Does not leave a situation to chance
- May require external motivation to identify alternatives
- Less creative but strong critical thinking ability
Intuitive Decision Makers
- Risk seeker
- Able to take on increased workloads
- Goal orientated
- Experience orientated
- Believe in luck
- High self-esteem to explore alternatives
- A creative and critical thinker
Granted, the above lists both contain qualities that could be considered a negative trait in any given situation, but the purpose of this essay is to draw on the benefits that intuition can provide.
Making a “Gut Call” is okay
The art of making a gut call exists in all leaders relative to the depth of experience they have within the field they are making decisions about. Trust and freedom to weigh up situations should be given to leaders during their formative years, so it becomes intrinsic (from within) as they move to more senior levels. As already mentioned, a well-balanced decision maker is able to switch between the art of intuition and the science of an analytical approach. Having a mature and reflective understanding when to do this is imperative to ensure discipline exists when identifying solutions. This is equally applicable for tactical level action or strategic diplomacy that needs to occur in a timely manner. There is always a necessity for analytical thought, but constraining leaders to this can promote suboptimal performance and limit developmental potential.
Using a sporting analogy, spectators of team sports are often amazed at the brilliance of some players who can “read the play”, know where to be at the right time, or understand how to “pick the gap”. This develops with training, exposure, learning the game and understanding how the opposition plays. Some players excel and represent their sport at the highest levels while others only strive to improve the technical aspects of the game. Like a sportsperson, leaders need a rich assortment of tools that equip them to make the best decisions to suit the circumstances. However, organisational expectations and governance can create pressures that instill a reluctance to exercise adaptive, creative and clever solutions. Notwithstanding this, leaders should not be flippant and ignore environmental inputs or the required outputs of the task. Senior leaders should provide training that extends the experience base of their subordinates to allow them to experiment in an environment that supports both their learning and their ability to weigh up a situation and make an intuitively motivated decision.
In closing, this essay has presented an understanding of intuitive and analytical decision making with an aim to reassure leaders that it is okay to “trust your gut”. This comes with a word of caution: intuition relies on knowledge, a deep level of experience and being able to put oneself in the other person’s situation. A mature and disciplined leader is able to move between the types of decision making to cope with complex subtasks or deal with new situations. Finally, senior leaders must provide experiential learning for their subordinates, then exercise their subordinates’ developing intuitive-nature as though it is a muscle.
About the author: Darren Murch has served in a variety of Infantry Battalions, from Private soldier through to Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM). He has also served as RSM for Mentoring and Reconstruction Taskforce 2 (MRTF-2) and at the School of Infantry. He has been posted to the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy and is currently the RSM 16th Aviation Brigade. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012 and is currently completing a Bachelor of Organisational Leadership.
Matzler, K., Bailom, F., & Mooradian, T. A. (2007). Intuitive decision making. MIT Sloan Management Review, 49(1), 13.
Nygren, T. E., & White, R. J. (2002). Assessing individual differences in decision making styles: Analytical vs. intuitive. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 46, No. 12, pp. 953-957). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Sinclair, M., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2005). Intuition: Myth or a decision-making tool?. Management learning, 36(3), 353-370.