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When Intuition Isn't Enough

A colleague recently lamented upon his observation of leaders who tended to make decisions based more on their ‘guts and intuition’ than on facts and critical thought. He immediately reminded me of Dr. Stephen J. Gerras’ work, Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking: A Fundamental Guide for Strategic Leaders, which encouraged the need for leaders to develop better critical thinking skills.[1]

Dr. Gerras observed that many senior leaders feel they know the best way and have a tendency to use an ‘automatic’ mode of cognitive thought vs. a more ‘controlled’ mode that involves energy and deliberation when reaching conclusions. He also found that leaders are subject to many biases which cause them to rely on incorrect assumptions and ignore facts that should lead them to arrive at different solutions. A more deliberate approach he suggests can increase critical thinking skills.

Dr. Gerras outlined a model of cognitive thought to help ensure that critical thinking happens when needed. The first necessity is for leaders to CLARIFY THE CONCERN and ensure that they’re addressing the right issue or the root cause.

Leaders need to also consider the POINT OF VIEW. This entails a great deal of self-awareness and empathy to avoid thinking ‘my way’ is the ‘best way.’ Ever worked for a boss who just knew it all? Gerras describes these egocentric tendencies as, “…the most significant barrier to critical thinking” and a common trap into which senior leaders often fall. Leaders must also consider if they are making ASSUMPTIONS based on beliefs vs. the facts before them. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all make assumptions about the way we think things ought to be.

Leaders must also be cautious when making INFERENCES or concluding something based on an interpretation of the facts in front of them. If you walked in the door and your dog was sitting next to a shredded pillow with sunken ears and tail, you may infer that she did it when in fact, it was the cat! When EVALUATING THE INFORMATION, leaders must be conscious of these biases and problem-solving techniques, resisting the urge to rely on “rules of thumb.” Key amongst many biases is the confirmation trap when leaders reject evidence around them and go with their own judgment.

Finally, Dr. Gerras urges leaders to consider the IMPLICATIONS of their decisions… “What if I’m wrong?” “What if the evidence isn’t as factual as it’s being presented to me?” “What if I haven’t thought of everything?” If leaders focus on these approaches (and not necessarily in a linear way), then the results of their most critical decisions should reflect a deeper level of critical thought and a greater likelihood of resulting in desired outcomes.

So what else can leaders do to avoid the common pitfalls of gut-reaction decision-making for the most significant leadership decisions? The recommendations are many, but amongst them must be:

1) Self-Awareness—The first step in avoiding our propensity to act without thinking is becoming more self-aware and looking for these bias-laden traps.

2) Encouraging Feedback—If leaders are truly seeking and considering the candid feedback of others on the team in their decision-making, then they’ve cleared the first hurdle in avoiding the confirmation trap. Gerras insists that treating one another as colleagues regardless of rank, title or duty is the first step in achieving the trust necessary to deliver this valuable feedback.

3) Looking For It—Leaders aren’t the only ones who can improve. By looking for opportunities to coach others, leaders can help everyone on the team develop greater critical thinking skills to make better decisions.


[1] Gerras, Dr. S.J. (2008, August). Thinking critically about critical thinking: A fundamental guide for strategic leaders. Retrieved from http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army-usawc/crit_thkg_gerras.pdf

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