Data, or gut feeling: Which should HR depend on?


The conversation that’s divided HR for generations – should we trust the data we’re given, or should we trust our gut feeling?

 

The phrase ‘go with your gut’ will be one known to anyone within the field of HR; often the advice is dolled out whenever a hard or people-centric decision must be made, but is it actually good advice? And what is a ‘gut feeling’ anyway? Yes, generally leaders will have an almost subconscious intuition, based on their own experience and split-second analysis. Some, such as former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, swear by their ability to ‘feel out’ a decision and disseminate their experience into a reliable decision, which he calls ‘intuition’. In an interview with CNBC, Eisner compared the power of gut decisions to being “like looking at a really great piece of art for the first time”.

Eisner isn’t the only leader who takes this view. According to a study conducted by Christian & Timbers, 45% of HR leaders rely on their gut when making important decisions, whilst an Economist study found that only 10% of all leaders actually follow the decision that data suggests. A full 87% either re-analyse their existing data or search for more data to back up their original, gut led, hypothesis. And as ex-Twitter VP EMEA Bruce Daisley highlights, this can be extremely problematic: “I trust data, and I think that being too reliant on your gut is actually very dangerous. In fact, I read some research by a Swedish scientist which stated that ‘gut reactions’ are often simply an implication of our own bias. We may subconsciously prefer one option over another, based purely on how we feel about the individual or item involved, rather than based on any truly grounded logic,” he tells HR Grapevine.

Gut feeling and subconscious bias

As Daisley states, whilst gut feeling may well come from a well-intentioned place, HR’s culture-centric roots are at risk of being polluted by unconscious bias, which, as Glassdoor’s research suggests, has a massive impact on not just your current productivity, but also your ability to resource good talent in the future. Whilst 67% of younger job seekers consider workplace diversity an essential factor in choosing a new employer, 50% of current workers believe that bosses aren’t taking it seriously enough - suggesting that, if this collective leadership decision to focus on other things was informed by intuition it needs to be informed also by stats on what future talent needs.

HR can be more credible and have more impact on business outcomes, but that’s only if we can make better and more connected use of data

 

Where do ‘gut feelings’ come from?

Sometimes the reason people are so inclined to go with their gut over analysis is because, according to Doctor Richard Cytowic’s paper on the subject published in Psychology Today, these feelings come from your ‘second brain’ - or an ecosystem of bacteria and a vast neural network operating in our guts, which comprises some 100million neurons (or more than the human spinal chord). “The enteric nervous system is a mesh-like network of neurons that lines the entire digestive tract. It causes the sensation of nervous butterflies or a pit in your stomach that are innate parts of our psychological stress responses. Up to 90% of the cells involved in these responses carry information to the brain rather than receiving messages from it, making your gut as influential to your mood as your head is,” the doctor states. If Cytowic’s hypothesis is correct, this deeply complex system has the ability to influence your subconscious decision-making processes, therefore influencing your ‘gut decisions’.

 

I think that being too reliant on your gut is actually very dangerous

Is data the solution?

If gut feeling is grounded in emotional or subconscious reactions to past experience, then data is the polar opposite. Data has less bias and, providing it’s reliably sourced, is always based on factual evidence. “HR typically has access to more data than any other department and yet still carries a reputation for taking decisions based on intuition and judgement alone,” Jason Fowler, HR Director at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, explains. “HR can be more credible and have more impact on business outcomes, but that’s only if we can make better and more connected use of the data we have so close at hand. To do so will require HR professionals in all roles and at all levels to gain skills and confidence in the fundamentals of data analytics. Only then can HR go beyond providing reports for others and use data from different sources to spot patterns and trends that point to underlying issues and opportunities across their business.”

This is also the opinion of TrustedHousesitters' CEO Mathew Prior, who states that data is absolutely essential to HR’s function. “You have to start with logic,” he says. “The first task is to work with your team to develop an engaging and compelling strategy. This has to be based on data and logic otherwise it runs the risk of lacking credibility.” And the significance of data in the workplace seems to be increasing. According to Forbes, 82% of organisations plan to either begin or increase their use of big data in HR before the end of the year. This trend has given rise to the term ‘intelligent HR’, which has widely impacted the industry lexicon, and which literally means utilising data to make informed decisions.

Yet whilst analytics are essential in business, in a people-oriented function like HR, most data and analytics won’t tell you the whole story, or at least this is the belief of Prior, who continues: “Along the way there will be decisions to take where the logic and data might be finely balanced for and against and not give you the answer. At this point gut feel can play an important part. The art of leadership is knowing when to draw the line and take the decision.”

Integrating the two

Comments such as these made by experienced leaders Fowler and Prior could be perceived as a definitive answer to the question of which element holds supremacy over the other, however, as Prior alludes, the truest answer may well be a third option. Statistics provide objective data, yet come with no industry knowledge or experience; gut feeling holds much of the latter but none of the former – the solution? Combine them. A Gartner Research and Markets report published in July of 2019 states that those who integrate not just industry knowledge, but a combination of experience and data before making decisions generally found that two years later, their choices were 81% more successful than those who only utilised one or the other.

This concept is supported by Paul Rubenstein, Chief People Officer at Visier, who states: “If you asked any reasonable person ‘data or gut feeling?’ they often feel compelled to answer ‘data’. All of the writing in HR’s media is dominated by the use of data and the vendors are pounding on doors to sell us data-driven decisions. But even as the Chief People Officer of a company that leads the analytics market my answer would be ‘both’.

“[This is because] it helps to ‘prove out’ what is in an HR leader’s gut instinct and often provides the next level of detail to help decide what, if any action, to take. The human or ‘gut’ aspect takes over when you apply your knowledge and experience to interpret the data and decide ‘what it really means’ and guides the actions you take in response to seeing data,” Rubenstein concludes.


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