In our digital and data-driven era, success in the workplace often feels like a numbers game. Is intuition even relevant any more? And yet, paradoxically, more and more businesses are taking an interest in this widespread and frequently overlooked phenomenon. French intuition expert Isabelle Fontaine, author of several self-help books, shares her knowledge and invites us to listen to our inner voice.
Intuition: at the boundary between rational and irrational
“Intuition is the universal ability to get information in an ‘unconventional’ way, that is, without relying on a rational and reasoned process,” Fontaine explains. According to the specialist, getting in touch with your inner voice is not just for mystics. On the contrary, this ability is innate to all humans: male or female, young or old, rational or creative minds. That said, since intuition expresses itself in ways that are little understood, it is seldom heeded. Intuition draws upon the five senses we use every day to process our surroundings, but in a more internalised, unconscious way. As Fontaine explains, “It’s an image, a thought, a physical sensation that surfaces inside you.”
“Intuition is an image, a thought, a physical sensation that surfaces inside you.”
Intuition is by no means an arcane topic. But it is still a bit of a puzzle, which is why it has been the focus of many scientific studies. While there is a rational explanation for some aspects of intuition, others remain a mystery to scientists. That is where neuroscience comes in, which defines intuition as a blend of experience and expertise, a form of unconscious intelligence. Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978, talked about “expert intuition”: the phenomenon of evaluating hypotheses and making quick decisions based on your knowledge and experience of past situations. It could also be considered a kind of reasoned intuition.
There is also a form of intuition that science has been unable to explain: foreboding, or predictive physiological anticipation. In the late 1990s, two neurologists, Antonio Damasio and Antoine Bechara, dropped a scientific bombshell with an experiment that became known as the Iowa gambling task. Subjects were presented with four decks of cards and told to win as much money as they could. What they did not know was that decks were either “good” or “bad”: the former would give a slower but steady return, whereas the latter would provide huge wins and, eventually, catastrophic losses. Damasio and his team monitored the players’ nervous systems and discovered that when hovering over a “bad” deck early on, subjects would show signs of physical stress long before their conscious minds had registered that the decks were losers. The results suggested that the unconscious and emotive parts of the brain direct our behaviour before conscious knowledge has a chance to catch up. The experiment has been repeated under different conditions in recent years, and the results are always the same. In other words, we really do have a sixth sense.
Is this the secret of good managers?
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and other famous business leaders have been open about the role intuition plays in their decision-making. “Many leaders, whether managers or CEOs, use intuition on a daily basis. It’s a way of making the right decisions faster, at the right time, with a focus on the company’s important issues,” Fontaine tells us. But beyond the boardroom jargon, the subject is still somewhat taboo in the workplace. In the late 1990s, a study conducted by Jagdish Parikh of Harvard Business School revealed the extent of this double standard. He found that, while 80% of managers attributed the success of their business to intuition, only 50% would be willing to acknowledge it publicly.
“It’s a way of making the right decisions faster, at the right time, with a focus on the company’s important issues.”
Progress, sparked by scientific research and international influence, has helped many businesses see the benefits that intuition can bring to their way of working. In management training courses and the business press, it’s presented as intuitive leadership or linked to emotional intelligence. Both of these approaches encourage people to understand each other, listen to their gut feelings and show empathy.
Is it possible to have a rational discussion about intuition?
Have you ever had a hunch wither under the spotlight of perfectly reasonable arguments? More often than not, intuition is put to the test by reason. “Fortunately, some business sectors and organisations are more open to the subject. Creative professions and startups are generally more receptive than traditional companies,” Fontaine said. So, should you share your gut feelings? The author suggests finding the right time for intuition and relying on rational explanations to save the day only when necessary. For example, imagine your instincts tell you a particular project or decision would greatly benefit your team. Share your feelings, but if the corporate culture demands more than an inkling, make sure you have the data to support your proposal. In fact, this approach is much more common you might think. As Fontaine points out, “Many scientists now recognise that their first research hypothesis is based on their intuition… before spending months or years trying to prove it.”
“Many scientists now recognise that their first research hypothesis is based on their intuition… before spending months or years trying to prove it.”
More companies are starting to see the value of intuition, especially when it comes to job performance and decision-making. But support must come from the highest levels first. “A change in corporate culture often comes from the top down, triggered by managers who share intuitions and give employees the chance to express theirs,” notes Fontaine. So how can you begin to develop this natural ability after years of neglect? Fontaine concludes by sharing two valuable tips:
- Listen to your gut. “Don’t ignore the thoughts, messages and impulses that move through you. You must give yourself permission to listen to them and then use them.”
- Free up your brain. “Intuition needs calm and inner space. Tuning into it requires us to disconnect from the smartphones and social media bombarding us with information and opt for more calming activities such as music or DIY.”
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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