Intuition: Basic instinct

HR is under pressure to be more accountable. But intuition still has a role to play in business, as Lucia Cockroft discovers

In a sector that has a reputation for form-filling and processes, it may come as a surprise to find that almost 70% of public sector managers confess to relying on intuition to identify star performers. This was the finding of the latest research into talent management by the Society of Personnel Officers in Government Services.

Most people make intuitive judgements about a person immediately on meeting them, gauging their personality, intellect and experience. But what place does the shadowy concept of intuition – or ‘gut feeling’ – have in HR?

Employers have spent millions preparing for proposed schemes such as the Operating and Financial Reviews, which would require companies to provide measurements on people, as well as financial performance. The industry is awash with words such as visibility and measurement, and there is a drive towards accountability.

However, some consultants argue there will always be a place for listening to your intuition – particularly when your work revolves around attracting, developing and retaining people, as it does in HR.

“Intuition isn’t a flaky concept,” says Jan Hills, managing director of The Hills Consultancy. “Business has grown up with the notion that it has to be rational and objective and you must quantify what you are doing. I spent much of my career in the City, and some of the best managers and strategists used their intuition first before looking to back it up with facts; almost as if the intuitive approach was the starting point and the measurement came afterwards.” Intuition needs to be trained, adds Hill. “It’s a learned skill, and the more you use it, the more reliable it becomes.”

Influential force

John Maxted, managing director of HR consultancy Digby Morgan, is another staunch believer in intuition, even though most HR training is geared towards an uncompromisingly rational approach. He says: “Intuition is a powerful force – especially in recruitment situations – and new research suggests we are tapping into an ancient ability to sum up people in the first few minutes, or even seconds, of meeting them.

“When we put clients forward, more often than not, the final decision is likely to be an intuitive one,” Maxted adds. “So if we have a shortlist of four candidates, there is usually one who is technically better. On many occasions, that person is not appointed – another is, for an intuitive reason.”
But ultimately, the extent to which intuition is used comes down to striking the right balance between an intuitive and a factual approach, Maxted says.

In conjunction with Hills, Digby Morgan is training its own HR consultants in this way. “As well as offering clients our usual rigorous assessment methodology, we develop and exploit our consultants’ intuition to ensure it is enhancing and not biasing their recommendations to clients,” he says.

However, intuition can never be a direct replacement for weighing up the skills and abilities of potential staff. “There is a place for gut feeling, but with plenty of caveats,” says Mike Petrook, public affairs manager at the Chartered Management Institute. “Intuition is worthwhile in the selection procedure, but relying on it can be risky.”

Petrook cites a typical example of intuition influencing the selection process – recalling an incident where a manager seeking to fill a post saw a CV whose applicant’s qualifications and experience fell short. Despite this, the manager had a hunch that the person was right for the position. The candidate was interviewed, ticked all the right boxes, got the job and became highly successful.

Recruitment is not the only area in which it is potentially dangerous to rely on gut feeling. Day-to-day people management requires fact and hard evidence, insists Petrook. “Intuition is not a core skill of management,” he says. “It covers areas such as meeting customer needs and management change. All this is factually based.”

Practical application

Some experts believe intuition is under-utilised in the workplace. Dr Maria Yapp, managing director of business psychology company Xancam Consulting, works with large corporations to help identify and maximise staff potential. Yapp believes intuition could be applied more in personal development and creativity at work – and says companies are gradually waking up to this fact.

She says: “A fact-based approach can seriously limit what people think they can achieve. A growing number of our clients are using an intuitive approach to help people push their own boundaries. It’s about getting people to say: ‘Never mind what I’ve been told in the past, I need to do more with my own imagination.’ They can then take more risks with their personal development.”

This can free staff from the constraints of self-doubt and logic, says Yapp, and tools such as meditation and visualisation also help people develop their right-brain way of thinking.

But relying on intuition is not always a ticket for success. Yapp says organisations need to exercise caution when it comes to the selection process, and in the area of promotion, when any decision should be based on rational facts and predetermined criteria.

HR managers are divided on intuition’s role. Sian Evans, head of commercial talent at food company RHM, goes as far as to say that 98% of her HR-related decisions are based on intuition. “Intuition plays a huge part – but it depends on how emotionally intelligent and self-aware you are, and whether you recognise that as intuition,” she explains.

Martin Moore, head of HR at the British Museum, is more cautious. “There is little scope for intuition in decisions such as recruitment and promotion, as it’s a risky thing to do,” he says. “You can’t go into an employment tribunal and say: ‘We hired a man instead of a woman because of a gut feeling’.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) argues that the principles of HR should never be based on intuition or feeling. Angela Baron, CIPD organisation and resourcing adviser, says: “People should make judgements based on job-related criteria. It’s easy to allow prejudices and personal opinion to get in the way and, in the end, it could be a discriminatory judgement.”

Back to basics

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, HR managers are beginning to embrace the power of gut feeling.

Arupa Tesolin, a US-based speaker and writer on business intuition, says the US HR industry has placed a huge emphasis on measurement, and training’s return on investment, over the past decade. There are now clear signs of a backlash, and a growing consensus that a greater emphasis on intuition means a clearer understanding of the people side of a business.

She says: “An organisation that solely values intellectual capacity can sorely lose in today’s rapidly shifting marketplace.

“Sometimes decisions have to be taken quickly and accurately. The answer lies in the balance of intuition and intelligence.”

The conclusion? Trust those gut feelings – just be completely sure that you can back them up.

Intuition in practice

  • A team of psychologists at the University of Toledo in Ohio, US, carried out several experiments on the role of intuition in HR situations. A student shot 15 seconds of film showing the applicant as they initially met the interviewer. The student then arranged for a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. On nine of the 11 traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers predicted the outcome of the interview.
  • A research team at the University of Texas tested 3,000 managers and found that the top executives rated significantly higher in intuition tests than middle or lower-level managers. In interviews, the top 100 managers used intuition in decision-making, especially when there was uncertainty, limited or unclear facts, and analytical data of little use.

Source: The Logic of Intuitive Decision Making, by Weston Agor, professor at the University of Texas and founder of the Global Intuition Network.

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