I didn’t debate the executive’s dismissal of intuitive decision-making as he stated that his company uses objective standards for assessing new hires. He was proud about the metrics and noted that  “we don’t put much weight on gut feelings.” I could have argued that few assessment procedures are completely objective, that psychology metrics are subjective, and research is constrained by parameters of awareness. However, a debate was not the point of our conversation. Plus, I value objectivity, so I partially agreed with him.

I’m used to biding my time until I can argue that the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex are all parts of the brain, even if we want to pretend that the areas that control logic are the most important. Analytical decision-making usually makes intelligent people feel safe and rational; intuitive decision-making generates doubt and unease. I understand. I’ve doubted myself too many times before I came to understand and trust intuition as a source of information.


The comment triggered the recurring theme I’ve witnessed in which brilliant people doubt the instincts that they can’t articulate or trace to specific behaviors. I hypothesize that those of us who are analytical have a deep need to understand “why” (and maybe even put it into a flowchart). Hence, even if we’ve read books such as The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker or Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, we still have a habit of doubting ourselves when we can’t clearly define our own thought process.

The problem with minimizing the power of intuition is that we ignore critical information that may inform a decision. When we do so, we often create risk for ourselves and our organizations.


Our brains collect data even when we are not analyzing it.

Imagine driving down the road, listening to a podcast about recognizing leaders with personality disorders. Two weeks later, over lunch, one of your associates tells you a horror story about a wrong business partnership. At the end of the month, you and a colleague attend a seminar about the human variables that create litigation risk. Three months later, you will unlikely recall the specifics of the podcast, the lunch with your associate, or the litigation seminar.

Six months later, you are on a panel to interview a potential board member for your company. Something bothers you, but you can’t put your finger on it. He was pleasant and asked great questions. His access to an extensive human and financial capital network makes you think you’re crazy for second-guessing him. Everyone else loved him, so you are left doubting your judgment.

The following day, while discussing a new business initiative, you listen to a colleague talk about data-driven approaches. He mentions the fallibility of decision-making that is not based on data. The conversation makes you think of the potential board member. You have no data, just a “feeling.” You want to be a team player, and feel dumb for declining based on a “feeling,” so you push aside your reservations and agree to invite him onto the board.

Eighteen months later, your board is embroiled in an epic struggle of power and ego that both brings decision-making to a halt and exposes your company to financial risk.

Here was the fatal flaw in your decision to ignore your misgivings. You assumed that because you couldn’t put your finger on the data points, you didn’t have the data. You DID have the data. Your brain contained data from the podcast, the lunch conversation with your colleague, and the litigation seminar. Even better, your brain encoded that information in a meaningful way, and you were able to retrieve it in the feeling that “something wasn’t right.” However, you assumed that since you couldn’t identify the specific data surrounding the feeling, your intuition might not be accurate.


We may feel intuition in our gut, but it comes from our brain.

Intuition contains details from deep memory that are outside of our conscious awareness. Long-term memory contains not only specific data points or details of events but also descriptions of patterns and processes. Thus, gaps in information or breaks in patterns, lead to the sense that something is “off” or “missing.”

To harness intuition as a valid part of the decision-making process, one must buy into the neurological argument that the human brain is constantly perceiving and encoding data into memory, that people are not always aware of this data, and that they often can’t retrieve specific parts of it even if they try.

If we can buy into the power of intuition as an undefined data stream, we can use it as an efficient shortcut to make the right decision. If something feels “off,” we can look for gaps in the information or process.

It’s important to note that gaining perspectives from other colleagues creates barriers to harnessing intuition because they do not have the same subconscious data stream at their disposal. While differing perspectives usually provide a safety net, a leader with a strong intuition about the correct answer may be opposed by 10 other people, all having strong logical arguments. I’ll also point out that it sometimes takes me weeks or months to understand the exact gaps I sensed in a decision-making moment. I might be able to list a few, but they don’t seem to add up to my conclusion.

If you struggle with trusting or integrating intuition into your decision-making process, here are some suggestions to help you move the needle.


Strategies to Intersect Analytical and Intuitive Decision-Making


Analytical Tactics for Intuitive Decision-Making

Put your predilection for spreadsheets to use. If you know about decision-making biases that impact our conclusions (availability heuristic, confirmation bias), you may have argued with me throughout this article. So test your intuition; be as ruthless as you want.

  1. Track your decisions where you allowed your intuition to influence a decision versus where you ignored it. Do a 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month outcome assessment.
  2. Where possible, list the variables of which you were aware. Try not to judge their validity. Simply list them. Assess which of those early variables were idiosyncratic, possibly due to the situation or someone’s nerves. Assess which variables became a theme over a 12-month period.
  3. Review every decision you can remember that had bad outcomes. See if you can recall any flags that you ignored in the moment because you doubted yourself or wanted a certain outcome to occur. Similarly, review the decisions with good outcomes, and see if there were any early misgivings that you ignored, or positive flags that you took seriously.


Emotional Tactics for Intuitive Decision-Making

  1. Apart from testing your intuition, ask yourself this question, “will I be more upset if I listen to my intuition and make the wrong decision, or if I don’t listen and then find out I should have?
  2. The number one mistake that both analytical and non-analytical people make in assessing other people is that they “don’t want to be mean.” They’ve been raised to give others the benefit of the doubt, not to be judgmental, to be forgiving…and the list goes on. I recently told a financial executive, “there is no way you’d ignore your whole spreadsheet of financial data and ‘hope for the best’ on a financial outcome; so why are you doing that when it comes to people?” Listening to our intuition doesn’t require us to be mean; it simply empowers us to be wise.


Finally, my focus here has been on human elements because of my interest in human due diligence and risk mitigation. However, intuition—recognizing information and patterns beyond our conscious awareness, can also help with business decisions. In the same way the we collect data on people, our brains collect data on business patterns. The context of intuitive decision-making may change, but the neurological variables remain the same.