Should NHS leaders rely on their hunches?

Recently I attended a workshop on how to facilitate innovation. I learned new tools and the process needed to get ideas to flow. One of the pieces of advice our facilitator, Jon, gave us was to trust our gut instinct when selecting which ideas could turn into innovation. This really intrigued me so I was prompted to explore what gut instinct actually is and whether it is a reliable way for leaders to make decisions.

Gut instinct, sometimes referred to as intuition or a hunch, is in our brain, which according to Jeff Stibel (in Ifenyi, 2014) ‘takes whatever information it has, it swirls it up, and it makes a guess’. The outcome may be correct or incorrect. People often associate gut feelings with something mystical and subconscious, and it gives an opportunity to feel special when the outcome is positive.

Relying on your gut instinct has some attractive benefits. It is relatively painless and saves time in the world of information overload. It fires up and hence speeds up the decision-making process. No wonder 45% of executives rely on intuition rather than facts and figures when running their businesses (Bonabeau, 2003). So is there a place for it in the world of the often risk-averse NHS, where evidence-based practice is the key decision making factor? How can HR professionals help develop gut instinct if it is a reliable shortcut to decision making?

Researchers seem to lean towards the theory that gut instinct is indeed a powerful tool as long as you have the expertise to use it. It can only work if you have prior knowledge. Otherwise it may fail us. Some research showed that people over-relying on gut instinct often jumped to conclusions and made logical errors, especially when making judgements outside their expertise. However, when leaders were faced with a pattern they have encountered before, ‘their non-conscious mind’ simply knew what to do (Morrish, 2012). In other words the more expertise people have, the more likely they are to make the right judgement using their gut instinct.

HR professionals with tools like coaching, honest feedback or programmes involving stretch assignments are best placed to support leaders in developing their professional knowledge and expertise. We have been doing this in the NHS for quite some time. But is it now time for us to recognise that by doing this we can help leaders use their gut instinct more effectively? Do you think the NHS is ready for that?

Agi Kertynska

Organisational Development Practitioner

Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust

Bonabeau E., 2003, Don’t trust your gut, Harvard Business Review,
Ifeanyi, K.C., 2014, Should you trust your gut feelings at work?, Fast Company,
Morrish J., 2012, Relying on intuition – should you always trust your gut feeling? Management Today,

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