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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Follow Your Intuition at Work, According to Researchers

image of white, yellow, and purple flowers with green leaves arranged in the shape of a brain against a bright blue background
Bailey Zelena; Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Intuition drives innovation and fuels our career decisions. And when we downplay the role of intuition, we risk our ability to innovate in the workplace and navigate our jobs and life paths. This isn’t woo-woo theory.

Working in emerging technology for 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time with teams that were truly innovative. In my last role as the chief science officer of an AI company, I had a front-row seat watching some extremely nimble minds brew up dynamic solutions to complicated problems, like using software to create situational awareness. But something else happened at the same time. I suffered a traumatic brain injury that changed my way of thinking and made me more innovative. I didn’t understand why, so I began to research how our brains create ideas.

My professional and personal experience led me to understand, scientifically and in practice, that we can and should rely more on our intuition.

Yes, really, intuition.

Intuition is a topic we rarely discuss in the workplace, often because of the divine, irrational, even superstitious connotations—ones that I rejected too.

But major companies regularly use coded language to hint at the importance of intuition. Amazon talks about “being right a lot,” Microsoft about “seeing around the corner,” and Whirlpool about an ability to “read the times.” And some of the greatest minds in science and tech have done more than hint. Albert Einstein famously credited intuition as his greatest skill. Dmitry Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table; Nobel Prize winners Barbara McClintock and Elizabeth Blackburn; and even Steve Jobs have also credited intuition with helping them make their most famous discoveries.

The more I dug into the research, the more evidence I saw that intuition has a powerful role to play in our workplaces as well as in our career trajectories—if we just understood what was happening in our brains and how to move through the process. I’ve certainly seen it in my own career path.

A few years ago, I was feeling confused about the work I was doing. I’d received a master’s in international security but had never done the type of post-conflict reconciliation and community-building work I had wanted to pursue with that training. Then, after my brain injury, I started to paint and sculpt with flowers. I had a “knowing” that if I just kept doing something with the flowers, I’d figure out something important. When I spoke about this with art critics, friends, and community members, they encouraged the work. Within weeks, my intuition led me to take those flower and art skills and lay a number of floral hearts. The feedback I got was positive and I combined my new art skills with my master’s degree training to create The Floral Heart Project, a COVID-19 memorial effort that eventually helped to spearhead a COVID Memorial Day in Congress.

This was my moment of “seeing around a corner” and it’s a process that is repeatable by everyone. It involves just five steps that now make a lot more sense to me after my conversations with researchers across a variety of fields—steps you, too, can take to develop, hone, and listen to your intuition.

Before we get any further, what exactly is intuition?

The word “intuition” isn’t unfamiliar. But when we use it colloquially, we’re not always zeroing in on what it really means.

In conversations with academics like Dr. Lois Isenman, author of Understanding Intuition: A Journey In and Out of Science, I learned that “using your intuition” simply means being able to take in a lot of information and let our unconscious brain figure out what’s important. For me, my unconscious brain understood art, community building, and marketing enough that my intuition knew I had ingredients I could combine to create a meaningful way to address COVID-19—and those skills with time created a national movement. Intuition is a mental tool that often materializes as a gut feeling or what some, myself included, describe as a “knowing.” When we’re “right a lot” or “see around the corner” or “read the times,” it’s because our intuition has been infused with enough information that it can detect with accuracy what’s relevant and important.

Intuition is only good for areas where it has good data. I think we all know someone who has great workplace intuition but perhaps terrible intuition about who to date or be friends with. Intuition is improved when we have access to lots of information and use new data to reflect on and help solve the problems in front of us. Senior leaders have often seen enough that they can detect patterns and understand how new information fits against historical data—or when new information requires a complete rewriting of the rules. In other words, they’ve honed their intuition.

But if intuition happens in your unconscious brain, can you improve it?

The answer I kept hearing was yes. We need to do the work of gathering enough experiences that our unconscious mind can do its job sorting through the data.

Data is everything we absorb in the course of living—and our brain is constantly trying to make sense of it. UCLA professor and science educator Rafael Romero helped me understand how this happens: Each piece of data gets coded into a memory (an engram) and our brains access our memories in a specific order depending on the scenario or stimulus. It’s why some people always want to solve work problems in the same way. That order is how we make sense of the world and the complex information we come across and figure out what to do about it. But innovation occurs when new data doesn’t fit into our old story and our brain needs to make a new order.

For me, learning to paint helped me put together my memories and ideas in a new order, which led me to try a new type of work (art-based activism) and to use my old skills (community building) to solve a new problem (COVID-19 losses). My existing story about how to community build (politically and economically) was displaced when I saw art being far more effective. Now, I lead with my work using visual stories wherever possible.

So how do you lean into intuition?

Try these five simple steps.

1. Pinpoint the question you’re trying to answer or the problem you’re trying to solve.

To gather the right evidence, it’s helpful to know what we’re curious about and what questions we’re trying to answer. Many of us are considering sizable decisions all the time: Should I move to a new city? Should I marry my partner? When it comes to work and careers, those questions might be: How do I get this project done? How do I further the goals of this organization? Should I even be doing this work? Should I leave my job? Should I change fields or industries?

I like to start by making a list of questions I’m struggling with. The questions for which there’s no clear path forward are often the ones people can have the most reticence toward. But the reticence or resistance you’re feeling is probably due to a lack of data. That data is what fuels your intuition and makes it easier to come to the optimal solution for you, at this time. And those are often the questions that would benefit most from this process.

For me, the big question was: Is this the work I should be doing? And there was no straightforward process or solution. So what next?

2. Allow yourself to meander and collect information.

The act of gathering information is pivotal to our ability to intuit and innovate, says Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology. In fact, his research showed that people (Nobel laureates) who have diverse areas of interest and therefore collect more varied information are actually more likely to be innovative. Their innovation comes specifically from their ability to make connections between different fields of study. Additional research found that leading scientists who have a secondary interest outside of work are actually more likely to create innovative and successful solutions.

To chase new experiences, consider taking up a hobby, engaging in an artistic practice, or even traveling. During my research with people who consider intuition to be a primary part of their professional experiences, many shared that they actively seek out novel experiences through travel, art, and books. Others look to meditation or sports to help them think about and understand the world around them. Ultimately, the specific experience you seek out is less important than the active analysis of that experience relative to your big question.

This summer I took surfing lessons, for example, and spent hours being told to pop up, look toward where I’m going, and let the wave take me. The instructor kept telling me to trust my body to figure out the process. When I applied those same learnings to my professional life, I began to better understand the organizational ebbs and flow of ideas, traction, and growth. Trusting the process and looking at where I’m going are as critical to a career as they are to surfing.

3. Talk it through with other people.

All of these new experiences are data. Data helps you create new stories. And Romero also helped me understand that conversation is critical to connecting and solidifying our stories. As we talk about our ideas and see what other people think, we get positive or negative feedback that tells us when we’re “on to something” or “off-base.”

You might talk to family, friends, colleagues, mentors, or others depending on the question you’re trying to answer. You can also actively seek out a therapist or to bring in a subject matter expert to help you understand and clarify what your new experiences mean and how you might apply them to the overall patterns and stories you use to explain the world.

One woman I interviewed told me she felt “lost about her career.” She took off for three months to Europe and spent the first six weeks traveling around. She encountered new cultures, tasted new foods, and learned how other people worked. When she settled in Barcelona, she got in touch with a therapist who helped her figure out how everything she’d learned could help her reconsider her work situation. When she went back to her job, she realized it was the exact work she wanted to be doing after all—she just needed to talk it out and reach that realization in light of the data she’d gathered.

4. Apply your ideas.

While conversation helps us solidify our “memory chains,” application further hardens those chains. Think of this as a test and try period. If your meandering period was largely research-based, this is where you will want to put that research to the test.

One woman I interviewed wanted to change careers. She took an entire year off, took nearly every class she could to pivot from marketing to operations, and started looking for a job as a chief of staff. But when she began to test the skills she’d be using as a chief of staff through freelance work, she realized she didn’t like it! She had a moment of intuition: She didn’t want to be in operations. She wanted to be a CEO and draw on her operations and marketing skills to run her own company.

Her intuition didn’t just “happen”—it was a product of this process: knowing she didn’t like her job, wondering what she did like, learning a lot of new skills, testing those skills, and then having an “aha!” moment that helped her find her way to a new career.

5. Embrace the “click” of intuition.

When something “clicks” as our unconscious tosses up a new idea, it can often feel at odds with logic. It can feel divine. It can feel inspired. The realization we’re drawn to may seem as if it’s plucked from thin air or generated from nowhere. But it’s not.

“Often deeper intuition represents the spontaneous reorganization of unconscious perception, which in the end might integrate better with deeper goals,” Isenman writes in her book. In other words, those intuitions come because we’ve followed a pathway of discovery by creating new experiences, gathering those memories together, and interpreting them in a novel way.

For people at all levels of their career, understanding this framework can help you find and follow a new path forward. Whether you’re working on a particular problem as part of your current job or navigating the next big step in your career, you can let your intuition help you do it.