Why You Should Trust Your Spider Sense

Good decisions usually require both hard facts and a well-grounded hunch. Here’s how to identify and leverage your intuition style
woman at work thinking

The essentials

  • There are four types of intuition: affective intuition, where judgements are made emotionally; inferential intuition, which is a hunch based on data; Holistic Abstract intuition, based on a personal theory of how the world operates; and Holistic Big Picture intuition, which involves a systems view of how diverse information fits together.
  • An international study found that personal styles of intuition can change over time. Less experienced employees tend to trust in their emotional intelligence and personal theories while more experienced employees put more weight on their intuited understanding of how their organization or industry operates as a whole.
  • Managers are much more willing than leaders to base their judgments on emotion.
  • The research is highlighted in the forthcoming book How Well Do Executives Trust Their Intuition?

Data and intuition are the yin and yang of smart decision making, though they don’t get equal respect.

In the Age of Analytics, we know a lot about how to source, package, and deploy data to develop effective organizational strategies. Until recently, though, intuition has been seen almost as a metaphysical process not worthy of deeper understanding.

Of late, social science researchers are working to remedy that. They’re trying to break into the black box of intuition to make it less mysterious and more useful as a decision-making tool.  

“Regardless of how important analytics is, when we look at business and how decisions are made, we see that both data and intuition are used,” says Yolande Chan, E. Marie Shantz Professor of IT Management at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University. “So it's important that in our enthusiasm for data analytics, we not forget the importance of intuition.”

Executive Intuition Is Good for Business

Recent research shows why intuition is an important way to assess strategic options. One study, for example, tested the relationship between a chief executive’s intuitive decision style and financial measures of non-profit organization performance. The study found that executive intuition was a significant and positive predictor of good fiscal performance.

We also now know that intuition comes in many shades. In 2014, researchers defined a scale of four types: affective intuition, where judgements are made emotionally; inferential intuition, which is essentially a hunch based on data; Holistic Abstract intuition, based on a personal theory of how the world operates; and Holistic Big Picture intuition, which involves a systems view of how diverse information fits together.

Using this scale as a starting point, Chan teamed up with Smith colleague Tracy Jenkin, Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Management Information Systems, and Dylan Spicker, a Smith Commerce alum, to learn more about how analysis and intuition work together. They conducted a web-based survey of managers and executives in Canada, the U.S., Poland, and Italy, as part of a larger study on executive intuition led by Jay Leibowitz of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

What they found sheds light on decision-making styles and has implications for career development and team management.

Fluid Styles of Intuition

For one thing, the researchers found that the four types of intuition are not as independent as first thought. While people have the capacity to call on all forms of intuition depending on circumstance, the researchers noticed distinct patterns: those who relied on the emotional intelligence of affective intuition also tended to use Holistic Abstract thinking — the researchers refer to them as Feeling Theorists.

Others who favoured inferential intuition based on hunch and data also favoured Holistic Big Picture thinking— these are the Big Picture Modelers.

The researchers discovered that these styles of intuition can change over time. Years of experience, it turns out, is the driver. Employees who were newer on the job were more likely to act as Feeling Theorists. Those with up to five years of experience tended to trust in their emotional intelligence and personal theories between 22 and 31 percent more than employees with 16 years of experience and up.

“It doesn’t seem to matter whether someone is a C-suite executive or an entry-level staff member. If they have worked for the same amount of time, their decision-making profile likely will have some similarities”

But as experience was gained, the employees tended to become Big Picture Modelers. They put more weight on their intuited understanding of how their organization or industry operated as a whole. In the study, experience-related tendencies held true across industries, job positions, and gender.

“It doesn’t seem to matter whether someone is a C-suite executive or an entry-level staff member,” says Jenkin. “If they have worked for the same amount of time, their decision-making profile likely will have some similarities.”

Years of experience, however, did not explain the differences in decision-making styles between managers and executives. Managers were much more willing than leaders to base their judgments on emotion. In the study, managers reported using affective intuition almost 20 percent more often than senior executives, even when controlling for years of experience. This may be explained by managers self-selecting into their positions, their personality traits, or the demands of the job.

Intuition and Career Development

These findings offer insights both for individuals and corporate teams. If you’re an early-career employee looking to progress into senior management, consider how your intuition style either helps or hinders your career progression. As a manager, if you prefer to use affective intuition — basing decisions largely on how they will impact employees — “you could actually not want to make the hard calls that the CEO has to make and you could limit your progression in the firm,” says Chan.

If you want to move into a leadership position, cultivate your inner Big Picture Modeler. Even if you’re more comfortable as a Feeling Theorist, complementary styles of intuition can be developed. “There are limitations to the predisposition,” says Chan, “and depending on the context you can start to develop strengths in other forms that might not have been innately your own form.”

On an organizational level, leaders can tweak decision-making processes to take advantage of the different types of intuition and analysis, says Jenkin. This may involve rethinking who needs to provide input on, for example, developing a model or evaluating an initiative, and who is given final say.

And when they assemble a project team, leaders can recruit a mix of Feeling Theorists and Big Picture Modelers to ensure those who are more grounded in data can collaborate with those more inclined to view issues from a holistic systems perspective.

“You need to understand what’s most effective in different situations,” says Jenkin.

Adds Chan, “When we're trying to make the best decision, our study suggests that diversity is helpful and that having people with different forms of intuition at the decision-making table will ultimately result in at least a better tested and hopefully wiser long-term decision.”

 

This research is highlighted in the forthcoming book How Well Do Executives Trust Their Intuition?

Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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