The Importance of Intuition

How many times throughout our lives do we enter a new situation – either something we have never seen before, something familiar with a twist, or even something we haven’t encountered in a while.

How many times throughout our lives do we enter a new situation – either something we have never seen before, something familiar with a twist, or even something we haven’t encountered in a while.  Even without the ability to properly diagnose, we sometimes get an uneasy feeling that can’t be explained.

Intuition is our ability to understand something without being able to put our finger on exactly what that something is.  It can also be thought of as an instinct or a gut feeling, and humans have an uncanny ability, on a subconscious level, to understand when something might not be going quite right.

Our brains are essentially two systems running in parallel.  The primitive brain, or System 1, handles all of our instinctual and  “fight or flight” functions.  It keeps our heart pumping, our lungs breathing, and our car on the road while we are tuning the radio, carrying on a conversation or just lost in thought.  After all, when was the last time we remembered our entire drive to work.  The more advanced part of our brain, or System 2, controls our conscious thought.  It is at the forefront when our subconscious brain can’t cut it.  When the car we are driving hits a patch of black ice, our brain’s System 2 kicks into action.  Is should also go without saying that our brains prefer to stay in System 1 as much as possible due to the ease of processing and energy savings.

This is important to understand for the Human Performance Practitioner because we need to understand where our instinctual behaviors come from.  We need to understand if the feeling of uneasiness we feel is just being unsure of a poorly written procedure or if we have something bigger to worry about.

Case in point – I was commissioning a new substation at the young age of twenty-six.  A technician was attempting to rack out a circuit breaker on the de-energized substation, but he was having difficulty.  He jokingly turned around and asked me to give it a go since I was the largest person around.  After putting a bit of tension on the wrench, I knew something wasn’t right.  I have never felt a racking mechanism this hard to turn.  But when you combine youthful arrogance with a slight apprehension to admit what my gut was telling me in front of others, you tend to get a bad situation.  This example was no different.  I put everything into the racking mechanism, broke the end of it off, and hit my elbow hard enough on the switchgear enclosure that I ended up in the office of an orthopedic surgeon.  It was a hard lesson.

So why don’t we listen to our guts more?

  • Inexperience: Oftentimes, young or inexperienced employees don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of other employees. When you feel that you have something to prove, you tend not to ask questions as much as you should.
  • Complacency: Before I explain this, let me start of by saying that I vehemently dislike the term complacency. Nothing does more to apply blame inappropriately to a person than this one.  It also does not constitute an appropriate Root Cause.  However, complacency can lead an experienced worker to disregard their intuition when they have completed a task hundreds of times.  Why should the 101st time play out any different from the last?
  • Missed queues: Sometimes, we just don’t see the faint indications that something is wrong.  It is one thing to disregard our gut, but another thing altogether to miss what it is trying to tell us.

So how do we learn to trust our intuition?  For me, it started with disregarding it until I started to understand that mine was right more than it was wrong.  This is the natural progression of gaining experience.  For other situations, the proper use of Human Performance Tools, such as Stop When Unsure, a Two-Minute Drill, or a self-check will take care of the vast majority of situations.  We must also drill the idea into people that any feeling of uneasiness must be investigated to be sure there isn’t more to it.  Ask questions and don’t be afraid to challenge authority in a respectful manner.  Even though HPI Tools and Techniques tend to focus on improving reliability, they can also be applied to improve Safety.  No one wants to have a serious injury or worse on their conscious because they didn’t ask.

For more information on trusting intuition or to see how we can help, please contact us.