Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Q: You have argued that 'instinct' is important to a leader. But isn't this simply prejudice? Could it be discriminatory?

A: It is true that 'instinct' has got a slightly dirty name. We think that we should suppress our instincts in favour of what we are told is rational. This can sometimes be fatal.

Psychologists don't talk about instinct - they talk about the 'adaptive unconscious'. Indeed, I understand that the study of this kind of decision-making is one of the most important new fields in psychology.

The reality is that many of our decisions are made on the basis of instinct.

Don't assume that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.

Quick decisions

The reality is that instinct is the sum total of our experiences and our learning. So when we meet someone for the first time, react to a new idea or face making a decision quickly and under stress, we use our instinct.

Isn't it interesting that, when we are making some of the most important decisions in life, such as choosing one's long-term partner, we don't go through a cost-benefit analysis?

One of the most important tips I learnt about leadership came from Heather Rabbatts when she was chief executive of Lambeth Borough Council. She said that, as she had grown older, she realised that she should rely on her instinct more for making decisions. When she had suppressed her instinct in favour of rational argument from colleagues, it had usually turned out that the decision was wrong.

The problem is that, although this could be a powerful force, it isn't infallible. Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests, emotions and sentiments.


And this is where your point is relevant. It is particularly true when we are interviewing for jobs. We certainly need to understand our instincts when we are interviewing people, but we also need to be aware of subconscious prejudice. These might be about age, disability, race or even that we don't like people who dress badly.

So we need to know when to trust our instincts, and when to be wary of them.

Because it is summer, I would strongly recommend as beach reading a new book by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm is the author of The Tipping Point - a study on leadership that I find very compelling. He has now written a new book called Blink, the subtitle of which is The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Get it.

Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send your questions to

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