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Managers can benefit from an overlooked resource: the gut

By Catherine Johnson and Maryse Barak

The challenges facing leaders in the business environment around the globe are becoming more complex and demanding.

While this creates a stimulating sense of purpose, it also carries uncertainty, stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

In a context of transformation, the challenges confronting business leadership bring unique pressures.

The 2006 Grant Thornton International Business Owners Survey reveals that stress levels among local business leaders rose by 65 percent between 2004 and last year.

What can business leaders turn to in this pressure cooker environment? A growing body of research is pointing to a powerful resource many leaders have overlooked: their intuition.

In our modern culture, which emphasises the power of conscious rational intellect, many have little understanding of the importance and capacity of human intuition.

Antoine Bechara, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Iowa, argues in a 2006 New York Times article, "Going With the Gut", that although many people treat intuition as a dirty word, it is actually a powerful natural resource we can draw on to complement rational decision making.

Echoing this opinion, Matthias Rosenberger of the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany argues in another article: "The best decisions do not always derive from analytical reasoning. The fact that emotional or subconscious principles - the gut feeling - significantly influence our decisions is verified by the latest research findings in psychology.

"Intuitive decisions are more reliable and make us feel more comfortable. Until today it seemed impossible to effectively use implicit knowledge, attitudes and visions."

Most people have experience of this gut feeling; at some point or another in everyone's life, intuition has influenced a decision. Perhaps it was a feeling in the gut or chest that said: "Don't trust this person."

It is usually the body, the gut in particular, that gives the signal that our intuition is coming into play. The gut actually contains as many nerve cells as the spinal cord and constantly exchanges streams of chemical and electrical messages with the brain, along what scientists refer to as the brain-gut axis.

For executives, tapping into and using a resource such as intuition can be a powerful ally in demanding times - not just in the workplace, but also in their personal lives. One process that has been used to great effect is "focusing", which has been developed as a tool to access intuition so that it can provide valuable input into the decision process.

Focusing offers a finely tuned conversation between intuition and intellect that enriches a person's capacity to engage with complex challenges in strategic planning and decision making.

The process has its roots in psychotherapy studies conducted in the 1960s by psychologist Eugene Gendlin, who investigated why some clients benefited from therapy and others did not. He established that the most important element of positive change had to do with how successful clients processed their experiences. He went on to identify which internal activities facilitated successful problem resolution.

Since then, the research has been expanded upon by a series of international case studies. The process is used in a range of disciplines, from education and coaching to community building. It has proven effective not only in decision making but in promoting more authentic leadership, improving interpersonal relationships and lowering stress levels.

In executive decision making, focusing is coming to the fore.

Flavia Cymbalista is a financial economist and researcher who has used focusing in her work with traders, investors and other business leaders. Her experience shows that managers and executives can tap into their intuition to illuminate vital new information they would normally overlook because it does not seem clear and rational.

"More-than-logical decision making," as Cymbalista phrases it, may seem like a new concept. But so was emotional intelligence 10 years ago - and today that is common currency.

The introduction of selected powerful techniques from the field of psychology is having a positive effect on the clarity and depth of strategic planning, leadership and decision making. Focusing, or thinking with the gut, offers a vital new skill to leaders in today's challenging business environment.

 

Catherine Johnson is a clinical psychologist. Maryse Barak is a corporate trainer. They will direct the new programme, Thinking With Your Gut, at the UCT Graduate School of Business next month

Last Modified: 12 September 2007

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