An Exploration of Intuition Among Senior Leaders
Johnny L. Morris, Ph.D.April 11, 2013
Intuition may be defined as a knowable cognitive process based largely on unobservable, non-conscious modes of dealing with reality, applying learned experience, tacit knowledge, and pattern recognition.The termintuitionis poorly defined, understood in different ways, and connected tenuously to other concepts.Where does one get it?Can it be imparted through organizational processes?Does it serve an effective purpose in the problem solving or decision making process?How might the literature inform the development of intuition?
Answering these questions remains difficult. Lieberman (2000) pointed out intuition, as a decision making and problem solving tool, has long been undervalued: "In our culture, the legacy of intuition is less than inspiring. Intuition is seen as mysterious and unexplainable at best and as something inaccurate, hokey, or epiphenomenal at worst" (p. 109).
Intuition is experientially built, situationally applied, and individually executed in particular contexts, so difficulties arise in operationalizing its use in ways that are predictive of behavior.Intuition always seems something thathas beenused effectively, but it cannot be said that itwillbe used effectively.Clarifying how intuition is perceived and employed in decision making and problem solving, at least in a limited context of senior leadership, makes pragmatic sense.
Intuition is a matter of subjective judgment, operating below a senior leader’s own consciousness.Intuition is interdependent of communications factors, interpersonal relationships, and independent thinking.Senior leaders are not purposefully or keenly aware of their employment of intuition (Cunningham, 2012)
Applying intuition in problem solving by senior leaders may serve real-life functions in other environments as well.Research studies for the 21st. century revealed senior organizational leaders are using intuition in a framework of complex decision making and problem solving as a form of tacit knowledge that is internalized over a considerable period of time.
Application of Intuition by Senior Leaders
21stCentury views on using intuition by senior leaders remain, theoretical in nature and unsupported by a body of research.As a practical consideration, using intuition by senior leaders may be generalizable to other environments by similarly situated decision makers such as senior military officers(Allen, n.d.).
Management of large, stratified organizations is qualitatively different at the senior level, calling for the primary use of different leadership skills, in a band of activity associated with providing purpose and vision to the organization, as well as tapping into external resources not available to lower level managers.Strategic decision making by senior leaders has far-reaching impact on organizational performance and long-term sustainability (Rahman & de Feis, 2009; Safi & Burrell, 2007).
Top-echelon leaders must have far wider time horizons than subordinate leaders, orient on value creation from sources external to the organization, and use persuasion far more than authority (Jacobs & Lewis, 1992).Senior leaders add value to their organizations in these critical areas. These elements are key essentials; a senior executive who has not mastered these skills is unlikely to be able to add real value to the organization.
Given such requirements, the influences on upper echelon decision making are many and varied.They include information processing from environments both external and internal to the organization, the capacity to collect and apply resources to address organizational needs, and the ability to apply personal judgment and personal relations skills to specific situations (Cunningham, 2012)
A critical factor for senior leaders is the ability to span hierarchical boundaries to influence and motivate people to get the job done across many layers of supervision.Senior leaders must also be able to span across organizational boundaries to access resources, influence, and support from organizations outside their immediate command and control.For leaders at the pinnacle of stratified organizations, common impediments to good decision making stem from inability to deal effectively with the varied influences resident in large, complex organizations.
They include:Not assessing the nature of the problem from the onset (Tushman, Newman, & Romanelli, 1985).Not recognizing the urgency for change (Kotter, 1996).Not setting clear objectives ((Nutt, 1999).Jumping to conclusions and failing to consider alternative solutions (Albrecht, 2002; Nadler & Tushman, 1990).Trying to do too much, too fast (Dörner, 1996; Zeira, 1974).Failing to hold people accountable for results (Jaques, 1990).In such a complex decision making environment, intuitive thinking may provide key executive advantages.
Exploration of peer reviewed articles and scientific journals
The purpose of this historical study was to explore the literature to determine how senior leaders in large hierarchical organizations experience or rely on intuition in problem solving and decision making.Peer reviewed literature presented a consistent model of justification for actions not necessarily observable as conscious, rational thought.
Germinal Authors Perspective
In 1991,BehlingandEckellamented that making sense of intuition as a management practice was hampered by its incongruities, despite its long consideration as an adjunct to leadership and decision making, those who wrote about it still had not reached consensus as to what intuition really represented.Their analysis assumed these conceptualizations were distinct, largely mutually exclusive, and therefore contradictory.
BehlingandEckelconcluded, "Intuition cannot be tested and evaluated until the confusion created by the differing conceptualizations is eliminated. Only then can intuition's role in improving the competitiveness of American business be determined" (1991, p. 53).Polyani(1962, 1966) conceived tacit knowledge as something unable to be overtly articulated and used without conscious perception. He emphasized the experiential nature of tacit knowledge, positing that it was gained through active, practical engagement in the environment and was skills-related in nature
Polyani(1962, 1966)placed it in an organizational and social context, in that any sharing of tacit knowledge demanded close interaction and a reservoir of mutual trust.While explicit knowledge could be learned through formal education and training processes, tacit or implicit knowledge required immersion in a relevant context, it had to accumulate by active, experience, that is,learning by doing.
Tacit experiential learning appeared in the literature in the 1960s as a dominant factor in developing intuition, and intuitive judgment implies specific connections between reliance on intuition and the accumulation of years of experience (Polyani, 1962, 1966).The practitioner in action does not appear to draw on particular experiences as an overt act of memory (Polyani, 1962, 1966).
Implicit memories are formulated as non-conscious models that are accessed without awareness.Knowledge is accessed without specific reference to any particular experience (Klien, 1997, 2004; Sinclair &Ashkanasy, 2005).Chester Barnard, a discerning practitioner-scholar, spent four decades working as an executive within the American Telegraph & Telephone Company (AT&T).While recognizing the role of conscious analytical thought in management, Barnard (1968) championed the role of unconscious, synthesizing thought, advocating nonlinear processes in executive decision making
Barnard, as a pragmatist and practitioner, emphasized that time pressures and resource constraints may overwhelm evidence-based approaches that rely on accurate, detailed information.Based on his AT&T experiences, Barnard advocated intuitive thinking in executive decision making.His experiences as a corporate executive led him to believe that evidence-based approaches might actually impede the development of visionary strategy.
Rather than reliance on empiricism in analysis and evidentiaryknowledge in judgment, Barnard advocated a holistic, systemic assessment of the operational environment and the application of intuitive judgment in decision making and problem solving.Evolvingperspectives relating to the use of intuition in decision making and problem solving included such factors as:Intuition as a factor inexpertise.Cognitive taskanalysis.Patternrecognition.Tacit knowledge and implicitlearning.Systems complexity and the limits ofrationality.Intuition's specific applicability toorganizationaldesign andstrategic planning.
Burkeand Miller (1999) followed Barnard's emphasis on pragmatic application of intuitive thinking to managerial decision making and problem solving strategies. Theiroften citedreport is seminal, not only for the clarity of its presentation but also for the simplicity and accessible qualitative methodology used in the research.Intuition is a knowable cognitive process based largely on non-conscious and non-rational modes of dealing with reality (Burke and Miller (1999).
Burke and Miller laid down a new baseline, echoing the practitioner perspective of Barnard in a qualitative assessment of experienced managers and executives.Subjects were queried through interviews and asked to provide their own perceptions and apply their own meanings to the definition, development, and application of intuition, which the authors accepted as accurate on their face.Burke and Miller took great care to be as objective and empirical as possible, applying descriptive statistical analysis to the sample (p. 96) within the constraints imposed by the method used to gather the data.
To allow for cross-referencing and external validity, Burke and Miller chose respondents from various fields:Aerospace industry.Public administration.Manufacturing.Service industry.Communications.Burke and Miller worked independently, so distinct observations across the dual research could be compared for character and reliability of what intuitionwasbut a consistent affirmation of what intuitionwas not.
Practitioners described intuition as experiential, emotive, cognitive, subconscious, and value-based, but never as supernatural or instinctive.Burkeand Miller embraced intuition as conceived by Barnard, expressing doubt in intuitive decision making as a mystical, primitive, and uncontrollable means of dealing with the real world.Intuition involves the interplay of implicitly learned experiences, tacit knowledge, and pattern recognition in providing justification for actions not necessarily observable as conscious rational thought (Burke and Miller (1999).
Intuitivejudgment comprises those evaluative and synthesizing processes involving the ability to assess the environment and compare it to experientially learned, complex, and domain-relevant models that enable rapid, confident decision making and problem solving, even in a context of ambiguity, temporal pressures, and evidentiary uncertainty (Burke and Miller (1999).Burke and Miller's salient conclusion set the tone for most subsequent studies of intuition: "Thus, intuition can be thought of as a cognitive conclusion based on a decision maker's previous experiences and emotional inputs" (p. 92).
Implications of the Study
Intuition may be necessary for senior leaders to effectively lead a global organization through the chaos and challenges of the 21st. Century.ExpertiseDefinitely a factor in senior leader performance at the executive level.Intuition at strategic levels transcends expert use of intuition, based on the bounded rationality inherent in strategic level leadership.CognitiveTask AnalysisCognitive task analysisplayslittle role in intuitive thinking.PatternRecognitionLived experiencesprovidesenior leaders with patterns on which to base actions.Intuition is spontaneousand holistically derived, not analytically deduced by incremental logical associations.
TacitKnowledge and Implicit LearningExperienceproduces tacitknowledge in an implicit learning process.Experiential learninggeneratesabstract tacit knowledge independent of conscious learning effort, which may be used intuitively to make sound decisions and solve new problems.SystemsComplexity and the Limits ofRationalityLinear, logical reasoningmaybe disadvantageous in the vague, rapidly changing environments in which senior leaders operate.Intuition'sApplicability to corporate strategyIn corporate contexts, resource and time constraints may overwhelm the capacity to process detailed information.Senior leaders follow nonlinear processes, rather than relying on rational, empirical approaches.
TheRole of Experience in the Development of IntuitionWhole lifeexperiences arethe primary factor in the development of intuitiveskill,decision making and problem solving, among strategic-level senior leaders.Senior leadersconceiveof experience in wide, holistic, and inclusive terms.Confidencein the Correctness of Intuitive JudgmentsSenior leaders routinely rely on intuition in their goal-oriented activities.They demonstrate confidence in the accuracy and correctness in the use of intuition.CognitiveApproaches to Taking ActionIntuition is seen as a non-rational process that takes place at a non-consciouslevel (Cunningham, 2012)
Factorsworth furtherexploration.The affective role of emotion on intuition.Gender differences.Cross-cultural differences.Comparative study of Fortune 500 senior leaders and general military officers.
The role of intuitive decision making and problem solving takes on added importance at senior leader levels, where the focus of cognition is far-reaching and operational problems are complex and systemically ill-structured.Regardless of the organizational approach employed, success depends on clarity throughout the value chain and the exercise of sound oversight and coordination of operations and functions, which are no longer neatly self-contained
Intuitive judgment should be deemed a key indicator of the ability to lead at the senior level.This emphasis should be explicit, reflected in senior-level supervisory actions and established as standard personnel policy.As an executive rises through the organizational hierarchy, her supervisory leaders must facilitate implicit learning based on encounters with both success and failure to build a tacit experiential base for intuitive decision making and problem solving (Cunningham, 2012)
Dynamic, rapidly moving career fields may profit from hiring of senior-level leaders schooled and confident in the use of intuition over decades of experience, whom are not likely to confuse unfounded emotional hunches with sound intuitive judgment Mitchell, Friga, and Mitchell (2005).Despite a legacy of mistrust, two decades of recent studies have established a commonality of vision that suggestedBehlingandEckel's1991 challenge has been met and Barnard’s seminal insight was sound. The underlying philosophical assumptions largely remain consistent between foundational as well as 21st century authors.
I appreciate the opportunity The Academic Forum afforded me to attend this conference and to make this presentation to my colleagues.You are invited to ask questions related to my presentation.
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