Improve Your Intuitive Thinking

“The real challenge is not whether to trust intuition, but how to strengthen it to make it more trustworthy.” ~ Gary Klein, PhD, The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut to Make Better Decisions at Work (Crown Business, 2004)
Many executives will tell you that decisions should be based solely on a thorough analysis of data. But a new breed aims to achieve breakthroughs by harnessing the power of intuition.
The more experiences we have, the stronger our intuition becomes. Repetition (practice) sets the stage for competency. Intuitive decision-making improves when we acquire more patterns, recognize how they play out and develop a larger repertoire of strategies.
Pattern Recognition
Repeated experiences are unconsciously linked to form patterns. A pattern is a set of connected cues. When you spot a few of the cues, you can expect to find others.
As we gain experience at work, we assemble a catalog of recognizable patterns. Over time, it becomes easier to match a situation with a previous pattern.
Truly inspired decisions require a more sophisticated mechanism: cross-indexing. The ability to see similar patterns in disparate fields elevates your intuitive skills.
Action Responses
Patterns include routines for responding, known as “action scripts.” If we see a situation as typical, then we can recognize the typical action to take. We develop hunches about what’s really going on and how we should respond.
Using our intuition, we translate our experiences into judgments and action responses. When intuitive leaders see familiar patterns, their response is usually obvious.
Professor Klein offers the following diagram to explain the pattern-recognition process behind intuitive decision-making:
Pattern recognition occurs instantaneously, without conscious thought. We make intuitive judgments so quickly that they seem mysterious. Professor Klein’s diagram demonstrates the science behind these judgments. Situations generate recognizable cues, and patterns trigger typical action responses that, in turn, affect the situation.
The Role of Analysis
Analysis has a proper role as a supporting tool for making intuitive decisions. Not all situations and experiences are the same, obviously. The extent to which we apply previous action scripts or devise new ones depends on our ability to analyze projected consequences.
Professor Klein recommends using “pre-mortems”: discussions that imagine scenarios with various applied actions and consequences. Intuition helps us decide how to react, and analysis ensures our intuition won’t mislead us.
Know “and Check” Yourself
Intuitive thinkers admit their instincts are often plain wrong. They understand that human nature can cloud decision-making. For example:

  • We will often take unnecessary risks to recover a loss.
  • We tend to see patterns where none exist -a phenomenon statisticians call “over-fitting the data”.
  • We tend to be revisionists. We frequently remember when we didn’t trust our gut and should have, while conveniently forgetting when we were fortunate to have ignored our instincts.
  • We set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we hire or promote someone, for instance, we consciously or subconsciously expend extra effort to ensure the person’s success, obscuring whether our choice was actually a good one.

Intuitive People
Certain characteristics define executives who outperform their peers in intuitive decision-making.

  • They’re open to feelings and impulses.
  • They seek continual learning experiences and are unafraid of asking questions.
  • They’re inquisitive and keenly observant.
  • They have a good sense of what will happen next.
  • They can articulate how a current situation has developed.
  • They’re aware of their fallibility and are open to alternative interpretations.
  • They’re confident when dealing with time pressures and uncertainties.
  • They anticipate problems in time to avoid or defuse them.
  • They aren’t put off by unexpected events; they use them to find new solutions.
  • They understand their routines and are aware of system limitations and traps.
  • They’re self-aware and acknowledge potential biases.

10 Tips for Improving Intuitive Decisions
Professor Klein offers 10 critical tips for growing your intuitive abilities:

  1. Be the best. There’s no guarantee you’ll be an intuitive savant, but this strategy is backed up by empirical evidence.
  2. Use analysis to support your intuition. Imagine which actions your impulse suggests taking; then anticipate what could conceivably go wrong.
  3. Put more energy into understanding the situation than into deliberating over what to do.
  4. Don’t confuse desire with intuition. Intensely wanting something to happen is not a reason to ignore commonsense intuition.
  5. Override your intuition when it misleads you. Intuition is fallible. Your mind excels at holding onto inaccurate beliefs and faulty biases. Try forming an alternate story to get unstuck from a stubborn mindset.
  6. Think ahead. Intuition helps us create expectations, connect the dots, flag inconsistencies and warn us of potential problems. A “pre-mortem” discussion helps teams run through a strategy to see how it will play out. In short, learn to foresee problems.
  7. Uncertainty adds excitement to decision-making. Intuition helps manage this emotion.
  8. Use the right decision-making strategy. There’s a time to rely on intuition and a time to analyze all of the factors that go into a decision. If the issues are complicated and no one has good intuitions about the situation, analysis makes more sense.
  9. Consult the experts. If you’re in unfamiliar territory, learn to trust the intuitions of experts with experience. Experts will see cues you won’t notice and will introduce options you may never envision.
  10. Stay alert for intuition barriers. Red flags should go up when everyone is expected to follow specific systems and procedures, regardless of the situation at hand. Understand when to question the data, and find out how parameters are acquired. You should clarify each step of your organization’s standard operating procedures to understand their purpose.

The Tricky Art of the Apology

Who hasn’t said something in the heat of the moment that they regret? Everyone makes mistakes. We make insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us.
No workplace is perfect. Managers berate subordinates in meetings. Colleagues make snide remarks about each other. Even worse, people send emails, texts, or tweets without giving sufficient consideration to how the messages will be received. This makes our insensitivities more public and all the more egregious.
Even seasoned executives aren’t immune from foot-in-mouth disease. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. (He later apologized to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.)
Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologize in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.
It’s time for an apology. But apologies can be tricky and can backfire. Without some forethought, an apology – public or private – is no guarantee you’ll redeem yourself. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to forgive.
More often than not, however, your apology fails because you apologize the wrong way. Most people approach it with some version of:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —-, I was only trying to —-.”
  • “I wasn’t implying that you —-, I only wanted to express my —-.”
  • “I had a good reason for saying —-, please understand where I’m coming from.”

In other words, we make the apology all about ourselves. We justify, explain, and coat it with our own polish.
Don’t Justify
When you screw up, people don’t want to hear about you. In order for them to forgive you, they want to know you recognize how you offended them. Your rationalizations for offending them aren’t going to endear you.
Make your apology about them and how they must be feeling. If you’re not sure what that is, ask. Focus on how they have been affected by your mistake or your words. Ask what they need from you.
You should take all ambiguity out of the situation. Don’t assume you know how they feel. Inquire, and listen to their answers.
Acknowledge Their Feelings and Values
The people you’ve offended need you to acknowledge their perspective. Don’t argue it. Let them know you hear them by affirming and encouraging them to talk about what is important to them.
When you listen to them talk about their feelings, you are opening the door to healing the damage done.
Restore Common Ground
When you make a mistake or say the wrong thing, you diminish trust in the relationship you have. You need to repair that by reminding them of your shared history, your shared goals. You reassure the other party that you want to continue to share commonalities with them and work together again. Your apology should include your intention to not let them down again.
Know Your Audience
Fine tuning an apology depends on knowing how you’ve offended them and what actions will aid in repairing the relationship. Often a simple statement of empathy will go a long way to restoring trust. At other times some form of compensation is in order.
There are no hard rules as to how to deliver an apology – whether written, public, private, or otherwise. Each is unique in its own way. What is appropriate in one situation is not in another. Only you can tell how to phrase it, how to deliver it, and how to make it resonate with the other party.
An apology always requires you to offer an expression of empathy to the offended party. Without sincerely stating how your error has affected them, your apology becomes a hollow justification of yourself and your actions.
When crafting an apology, ask yourself, “Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology?” If you’re not sure, then consult with a trusted peer or your coach.