63 – ‘The more experienced the managers, the more they trust simple intuition’. Or do they?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         700 words


Some time ago I posted on an idea from Richard Farson’s book, Management of the Absurd – Paradoxes in Leadership. This post has been inspired by another chapter in that book.

Farson says that the one quality that top executives say separates them from their less successful colleagues is their intuition. Their ‘immediate visceral reactions’ to people and events are usually accurate, which makes their judgements valuable. Farson defines intuition as the ‘accumulation of many learning experiences that have sensitised them, making them able to read situations quickly’. It is a quality that allows top management to make fast decisions that are effective. However, when top management starts to lack confidence, they start to apply formal processes to make decisions. They replace their immediate visceral reaction with complicated analytical thinking.

I have seen this happen countless times in local government. Perhaps the best example is recruitment. Most councils have a complicated system to recruit new staff. The system has been designed by human resource professionals to eliminate risks. It is enshrined in systems that force compliance. Panels of people must assemble to ask each candidate the same set of predetermined questions.  Copious notes are kept in case anyone challenges the process. There is a score allocated for the answer to each question based on a predetermined rating scale. At the end, you add up the numbers and have a list ranked form the most to the least preferred candidate.

Is this the best way to find the right person for a job? I am not convinced. To me it is designed to prevent managers using intuition in an environment where every decision has to be justified by some empirical data. This means the process is slow and inflexible. If it starts out wrong, it ends up wrong. Sometimes the score results in a candidate being most preferred who everyone on the panel knows couldn’t do the job. I have heard about councils using the STAR approach (situation or task, action and result) and scoring candidates based on their response to questions and then realising that the applicant who scored the lowest had more fully demonstrated the behaviours they were looking after. They just weren’t good at the interview process.

Farson has some reasons why he believes managers cease to use their intuition. We are taught not to trust our emotions; we learn to be impressed by appearances; we learn to ignore things that don’t fit our belief system (and accept things that do); we are influenced by what has worked before; we are taught to be suspicious of our first reactions; it becomes difficult to trust our intuition when we are insecure and afraid to take risks; and we are sometimes over-dependent on the judgements of others.

It is the last two reasons that I think influence top management in local government. CEO’s, in particular, seem to feel obliged to make decisions that have rational and defensible evidence for them. They need some ‘science’ behind their decisions. They are most uncomfortable answering ‘because’ when their decisions are challenged. Farson discusses parents using ‘because’ to say to children that ‘my accumulated experience here has convinced me of something that I can’t explain to you in rational terms, or that you cannot yet understand’. I sense that CEO’s are often in that same situation, yet fail to use their intuition. Dependency on the judgement of others is evident in the use of consultants, especially for activities like recruitment.

I understand the accountabilities that exist for CEO’s and top management in local government. But I also know that if they are expected to produce results, they need to use their intuition and be prepared to defend it as a reasonable course of action based on their experience and knowledge. In reality, many do use their intuition but cloak it in ‘science’, which risks sending mixed messages.

Farson, Richard 1996. Management of the Absurd – Paradoxes in Leadership.