Public Management

Leadership: balancing rationality and intuition

By Jan de Vuijst | June 20, 2016 | 4 min read

For a long time the prevailing conviction has been that we take decisions based on reasoning, through conscious thinking, rationally. The leader provides arguments for what he or she wants to achieve, and every decision requires a rational business case. Or so we thought. In this article, Prof. Dr. Jan de Vuijst, professor in the Leadership Masterclass at TIAS, explains how rationality and intuition influence leaders' decision-making.



Priming: taking decisions via stimulation

In the second half of the nineties, psychological and neurological research became increasingly interested in irrational decisions, irrational behavior, intuition. Much of that research has found its way into popular scientific literature. This describes spectacular phenomena: somebody can become smarter simply by studying (for just a few minutes) the behavior of a scholar. If a test person has held a warm drink, he will be significantly more prepared to give money to charity than a test person who has been holding a cold drink. It is evidently much easier than previously thought to steer peoples' behavior and their decisions by stimulation. The term used for this is priming, which can be thought of as "pre-charging".

If people are so easy to influence, do they still act of their own free will? One of the pioneers of this research, John Bargh, gave one of his articles the title The Unbearable Automaticity of Being(1999). At the end of the eighties, Daniel Wegner demonstrated that people who are not allowed to think about a pink elephant are simply no longer able to forget that image. In 2002 he published the book The Illusion of the Conscious Will. In that he describes, among other things, that brain activity indicating that a decision is being taken precedes consciously taking the decision. So the decision has already been made and only afterwards, as if to give a sort of legitimacy to the decision, does our brain provide conscious reasoning in order to arrive at that decision. Wegner demonstrated that same phenomenon once again by having test persons focus on thinking about something, while himself ensuring that what they were thinking about actually happened and the test persons evidently thought that they had done or decided on it themselves.

The six secrets of persuasion

The significance of these insights for deliberately influencing others is described by among others Cialdini (2009), who gives it a very practical twist by discussing six mechanisms that unconsciously influence others:

-    Reciprocation: someone who unexpectedly (and personally) receives something, tends to want to do something in return. So the giver builds up credit.

-    Consistency: if someone says A, then he wants to say B. So the leader who asks people to help to 'make a tentative start with a project' stimulates those involved to be consistent and to continue working on that project after that tentative start.

-    Social proof: in primarily ambiguous situations we love to behave ourselves in the same way as others behave, especially our peers (the same department, the same company). This is the basis for an 'all-stick-together' effect that the leader can use in persuading employees to participate in a change – the more people who are curious in the possibilities, the more others will be drawn along in that curiosity.

-    Sympathy: those we sympathize with have a greater influence on us than those we don't like. This is an intended side-effect of appreciative leadership: give compliments, be sincere in your admiration of what people have achieved.

-    Authority: we soon associate someone with the status symbols that give them an appearance of authority (titles, clothing, exclusive jewelry) and confer a certain degree of authority on that person – that person can quickly influence us. Compare the infamous Milgram experiments, as early as 1963, of research into obedience: as soon as a researcher donned a white coat, he was obeyed as someone with authority, even if that meant that you had to inflict pain on someone, something you would not normally do.

-    Scarcity: we attach relatively more importance to scarce resources. The leader who wants more than averagely motivated participants in a work meeting may subtly point out that only a few participants will be invited.

Daniel Kahneman (2011) has paid a lot of attention to the question of how intuition influences our decision-making. He demonstrated that in our personality we are confronted with both intuition and rationality. Kahneman and Tversky are seen as authorities in decision-making research. They are the founders of what has become to be known as ‘behavioral economics’, an approach that takes account of people who do not merely act rationally, as is assumed in classical models. Kahneman and Tversky received the Nobel Prize for their work. George Akerlof and Robert Schiller, both of whom were also Nobel Prize winners, continued in the same vein with their book Phishing for Phools, 2015, in which they describe the economy as a domain full of manipulation and deceipt and in which laws such as supply and demand do their apparently objective work.

It has been established that many of these decisions have been taken unconsciously and that following diagrams or stimulation models primarily serve in giving us a feeling of control. For instance, there are organizations that have worked out in minute detail how a manager may arrive at a decision to give an employee a negative assessment. All the instruments indicate a false feeling of objectivity: the manager knows all along, before he or she even consciously allows the thought, whether the employee concerned is good or bad – at least, in the eyes of the manager. All assessments will subsequently be written in terms that presume objectivity, but after all in any partnership it is subjective assessments that matter. All these worked-out lists are really an admission of weakness in an organization. It is after all the task of a leader to interpret rules instead of cold-bloodedly applying them and the organization reinforces the leaders' leadership by acknowledging that.

I don't think we should tip the balance the other way in the presumption that "everything is intuition". So much attention has now come for the irrational and unconscious that the importance of rational, conscious reasoning is virtually overlooked. As Kahneman emphasizes: we need both, rationality and intuition. For the leader it also holds that: intuition is important, but rationality, analysis, reasoning and analyzing just as much so. Among others Baumeister and Masicampo (2010) show that it is rational consciousness that is necessary for the creation of culture, narrative thought, meaningfulness and simulating reality. In the coming decade plenty of research will probably be done into the relationship between conscious/unconscious. For the leader it holds that both will have to be developed to a high degree, whereby with sufficient reflection the leader can also make conscious use of both these parts of his or her own personality.

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