Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge

Blog Posts - Feb 1, 2017

Jorden Schmidt
Leadership & Culture

There are many companies in this age of information which strive to be “teaching organizations.” It’s not an uncommon practice – what better way to ensure your people have the tools to succeed than by teaching them yourself? Plus, encouraging teaching across all levels promotes a healthy transfer of knowledge (think Gen X’ers to Millennials). Approaching your employee base with this philosophy not only improves the production capability of the individuals you currently have on staff, but adds a little something extra to your company’s culture (and by extension, its brand) when it comes to recruiting new talent.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say you have already bought into this idea of a “teaching organization.” You see the benefit the philosophy entails – I’m not here to make that case to you. What I am here to do is help you ensure that your teaching does not fall on deaf ears.

First, let’s take a step back. What is teaching at its core? Teaching is simply the communication of ideas. So, the quality of that teaching can be thought of in two dimensions: the strength of the idea and the efficacy of the communication. Good teaching is when both dimensions are adequately accounted for – one without the other just won’t cut it.

Let’s take that effective communication/strength of idea duality to the extreme:

  1. You could sit down with each one of your employees and have a lengthy discussion on how, contrary to popular belief, the earth is in fact flat, and the discussion would of course be replete with talking points, Q&A, and breakout sessions to discuss the idea further.
  2. Alternatively, you might decide to teach your entire staff the various ways in which Kahneman and Tversky’s work in behavioral economics has had significant ramifications on how we think about consumer decision-making, using only your preferred language of Latin.

Now, both scenarios are obviously hyperbolic. But take the silliness out of example #2 for a minute- have you ever felt like you were speaking a foreign language when trying to teach or communicate an idea to someone? Turns out it might have something to do with a little something called the Curse of Knowledge.

The curse is simple: when we know something, we find it exceedingly difficult to imagine what it was like when we did not know that thing. So, we find communicating the idea to be problematic, because we can’t easily put ourselves in the shoes of the “learner.” Our knowledge has cursed us.

So what does it all mean for you?

Let’s say your company has adopted this “teaching organization” philosophy. It’s your responsibility to ensure employees, and particularly managers, are getting the tools they need to succeed today and eventually develop into the future leaders of the company. You know how to lead – but are you certain you can teach another to? How do you ensure your teaching mechanisms stand up to the curse of knowledge?

At Think Shift we use “Tools” to teach, to communicate, and to create a common language across departments and hierarchies. Tools like “Co-accountability” give us a platform for which to have difficult conversations – conversations that might not happen in a traditional organization, but make us better and more agile because we had them. “Category of Meetings” creates structure and a common set of descriptors that we can use to hold effective cross-functional meetings. Our most widely-used Tool is “Levels of Performance,” which provides managers and direct reports a method of communicating performance simply and consistently – encouraging honest and open dialogue with the shared goal of constant improvement.

Here are a few things you can do to help conquer the curse of knowledge:

1. Recognize the curse exists (and that you’re not immune!)

Using and implementing “Tools” in an organization creates a common language and a means to communicate across information gaps. If the teacher and the learner have a common set of terms they can use, opportunities to teach become more abundant and more effective.

2. Know your audience (cliché as it sounds, you’ve got to make it happen)

Teaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all task. You likely have a diverse employee base – by virtue of departmental needs, hierarchical structure, and cultural backgrounds. Being cognizant of who you’re teaching will help you catch where you might be making assumptions that you probably should avoid, and where you can adjust your examples to better relate to the audience.

3. Use story to show your idea

The use of story in teaching forces the teacher to put things in concrete terms. It provides context to how and when the idea could be applied, and allows the learner to extract actionable meaning more easily. Plus, stories stick with us much better than a series of facts – keeping the idea alive in the individual and the organization.

There will always be “information gaps” in communication between individuals – people differ in experience, education, generation, culture – it’s an unavoidable fact of reality. But recognizing them, knowing your audience, and establishing a common language through storytelling (i.e. not Latin) will enhance communications across these knowledge gaps, and by extension allow you to successfully circumvent the curse of knowledge. Now get teaching!

For a taste of how Think Shift helps clients become better at teaching, check out our online learning platform below:

Visit Think Shift Academy