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Intuition Plays Hidden, but Important, Role at Work

Bill Gates said you often have to rely on it.

Albert Einstein called it “the only real valuable thing.”

Jonas Salk, scientist and discoverer of the polio vaccine, said it “will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”

Special Agent Jethro Leroy Gibbs, head of a fictional Naval Criminal Investigative Servicesteam on TV, famously relies on his gut for finding and triumphing over bad guys.

If you have a hunch they’re talking about intuition, you’re right.

“Intuition absolutely plays a part [in business] but describing it in tangible business-related terms is a challenge,” said Madeline Hollis, SPHR, HR manager for a Tennessee-based financial services company.

She recalled the time a job candidate’s body language sent warning signals during an interview.

Most of the candidates she interviewed for one particular job tended to be “very energetic and convincing,” she said in an e-mail, but one person in particular was lackluster, despite looking good on paper. The woman’s interest in the company, job responsibilities and requirements, and compensation came across as “mediocre at best,” Hollis said, as if the candidate was just “going through the motions.”

Despite Hollis’ reservations, the hiring manager instructed her to make a verbal and written offer. The candidate accepted the offer verbally, but did not return the written offer by the deadline. The hiring manager pressed Hollis to follow up for four days despite Hollis’ continued reservations.

“Intuitively, I knew the person was not interested and was not going to accept,” Hollis said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

She was right.

After five days of chasing the candidate down, the candidate finally returned Hollis’ calls. Turns out she had dodged Hollis because she’d accepted another job already.

What Intuition Is—and Is Not

Hollis, a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member, has found her intuition to be “spot on” and believes there’s a notable difference “between intuition and initial bias to a situation.” She adds: “That’s why I internally or sometimes externally probe for understanding.” Often, she has found that the business-related reason for her gut feeling becomes apparent.

Malcolm Gladwell does not cite “intuition” anywhere in his best-selling book Blink(Little, Brown and Co., 2005), which looks at the two seconds it takes for a person to reach a conclusion about something or someone.

Gladwell, a frequent keynote speaker at SHRM conferences, does not even like the word “intuition,” he says at the end of his book.

“Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings—thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational,” he wrote. “But I think that what goes on in those first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking—it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’ ”

A 2012 white paper by Greg Moran, CEO of, points out that “hiring on gut feel is just as critical a part of the screening process as any objective tool.” The trick, Moran writes, is to know when to rely on intuition and when to rely on hard data.

“Hiring managers who ignore a good or bad gut feeling open themselves up to other risks, namely letting a socially awkward high performer fall through the cracks or hiring a poor performer who’s articulate,” he says in the paper.

They will have more success when their intuition comes into play with job candidates who have gone through initial screening and had a successful, structured, first-round interview, according to Moran.

Cynthia V. Gregory, SPHR, a public-sector HR analyst in Oregon, has found her intuition plays a valuable role during the recruitment process and investigations.

In the recruitment process, it’s “that sense that makes us ask a follow-up question or dig deeper into references when things don't add up between the resume and the person interviewed,” she said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“All that said, I would never rely totally on intuition, any more than I would rely totally on hard facts! There is a balance that requires both.”

Gerd Gigerenzer, author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious(Penguin, 2008), has worked with large, worldwide companies and interviewed the CEOs and top decision-makers of those organizations.

Intuition plays an important role in many real-world decision-making situations, but societal pressures to produce rational and factual evidence for a decision often lead people to legitimize their gut decisions after the fact, he said in a December 2011 YouTube video.

“When you ask them in what proportion of the cases is the final decision—an important professional decision—a gut decision, then depending on the company the answer is roughly 50 percent,” he said.

It’s something they usually would not admit publicly, “because intuition is, today, not something that is highly respected in business.”

Those who have to be accountable to others, such as doctors, politicians and business leaders, hide their intuition, he said, and this “leads to unnecessary costs and time and waste of intelligence,” such as hiring “a consulting firm that writes on 200 pages why your decision is the best one, including a PowerPoint.”

Facts and intuition do not operate apart.

“You need facts and also the intuition of an experienced expert,” Gigerenzer observed.

SHRM member Gregory concurred.

“Hard facts, rules, policies, that’s such a huge portion of our work in HR,” she said. “For me, intuition comes in when there are discrepancies in information, facts, etc. It’s the thread that I pull … it makes me ask a different question, or look at another angle,” she said in an e-mail.

Intuition plays a role in the HR career field,” she said in an HR Talk chat, and is “the peek behind the curtains of that candidate … that helps us gauge whether that candidate is being honest and forthright,” she mused.

It’s something, she said, “we should use.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor, HR News.


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