Being risk-averse erodes our capacity to problem solve; it pays to tune into your intuition, writes Chris Pearse

Last year an employee in a company that I work with was accused of racial abuse. The directors immediately took legal advice and initiated grievance procedures. The lawyers were unequivocal: suspend the employee on full pay with immediate effect. In spite of the legal advice and the threat of personal liability, the directors decided not to suspend the suspect, and instead held a series of meetings with both alleged culprit and victim. The incident was rapidly resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

A professor of medicine at University College London recently described to me his experience relating to a patient who had been in his care. Having followed all protocols for the condition, he awoke in the dead of night with a strong impulse to have the patient urgently transferred to a high-dependency unit for immediate monitoring. The duty doctors resisted but eventually complied to discover an underlying, life-threatening issue that was successfully treated.

These are just two examples of intuition overriding the urge to comply with not just common sense, but legal advice and medical protocol. In both cases, feelings supplanted reason and won the day. The first carried significant risk; sometimes the instinct to avoid risk is so strong it suffocates other responses.

In 2012, a man drowned in three feet of water after emergency crews were ordered not to rescue him because of safety rules preventing them from going more than ankle-deep into the lake. Contrary to popular opinion, decision-making is a feeling-based process. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the case of a corporate lawyer who had a tumour removed from his brain. Although tests found all his cognitive faculties intact, his ability to feel emotion had been eradicated together with the tumour. Unable to take any meaningful decisions, he was left incapable of work.

This anecdote confirms my own observation that although logic, reason and analysis inform the feelings that we have about the world around us, it is our feelings and our feelings alone that control all the decisions that we make – a compelling case for developing our sensitivity to feeling and emotion. Intuition is the ability to bypass normal sensory and cognitive faculties, and perceive directly. The intuition is transmitted as a feeling with little or no supporting rationale. The feeling is often perceived in various parts of the body, particularly the gut.

Our challenge is to tease out the genuine intuitive wisdom from the instinctive reaction, learned response or cognitive bias masquerading as an authentic insight. This makes developing emotional intelligence indispensable in both a leadership and personal context.

Tackling this challenge starts by acknowledging that reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive – they need to work hand in hand. That means we should spare no effort in informing our feelings with as much research and analysis as possible, before any significant decision. But then attention should be turned to our feelings around the issue: they need to be fully acknowledged and felt, for the most informed decision to be made.

Second, there needs to be an ongoing development of emotional acuity and self-awareness, often best overseen by a coach or mentor. True intuitions, arising in the absence of any tangible rational support, can be surprisingly neutral in emotional terms. The feeling of ‘I just knew’ is a common observation. Strong, attendant emotions can often indicate the presence of bias or other noise arising from our own mindset.

Ultimately, the key is for us to develop awareness of our inner mental and emotional dynamics, taking full responsibility for our own decision-making process. The more we strengthen this faculty, the less prone we are to our own and others’ cognitive bias, misplaced advice, flawed instinct and fear.

Leadership consultant Chris Pearse is ‘The Corporate Magician