The curse of knowledge

Early in my coaching career I sometimes felt like Cassandra, from Troy, who would see impending disaster and tell people, only to be ignored and then see the disaster unfold. I would say things like “if you leave testing to the end you will miss your deadline,” or ” If your try to estimate your work, you will improve even if nobody else sees the estimate.” Then teams would be too busy and stressed and not gain from my, rather obvious, insights even when they said they agreed with me at the time I gave the insight.

Early in my management career, I had a seemingly different experience, that I now believe had the same root cause. I managed some high performers, I delegated challenging work to them and I trusted them to get on with the job.

They were pretty awesome and our team thrived almost by default, so I was shocked to discover one day when talking to a couple of them that they did not realise they were high performers and that they sometimes felt I did not really care if they succeeded.

How could they miss my obvious confidence in them when I spoke highly of them, trusted them with key initiatives and called on their opinion.

I now think both of these situations were examples of me suffering from the curse of knowledge.

This is “a cognitive bias” where:

  • I assume that others have the same background knowledge that I have. For example, that estimating is best done as a statistical exercise and not an analysis based on causal reasoning; or
  • I assume because I see something, that others see the same thing the same way. For example that a leader would only delegate high profile, challenging assignments to high performers; or
  • I forget what it is like to not know something or to struggle with learning something. For example the stress of trying to test, reconcile and build when there are tight deadlines while learning to really understand critical points of failure, which is so much harder in practice than simply “testing as you go.”

Perhaps others would think that it is my arrogance (assuming people should know things) or my lack of empathy (understanding what it is like to be new to an idea).

However I don’t really think that I am arrogant or lacking in empathy and if you know different then, as obvious as it seems to you, I do not realise it. I think I just get caught up in my own assumptions and move too quickly to see the mounting evidence that others are not along for the ride with me.

The way to remove this curse, I have learned time and again, is easy but hard at the same time. It is easy because there are simple steps to remove it and it is hard because I need to reflect, focus and remember to apply the steps.

The first is to actually listen to understand what people are saying. This seems obvious but sometimes I still listen to think about how to respond, opening the door to my assumption that others are on the same page as me. Since I had the right response I can assume (incorrectly) that we had the right conversation.

This works better if I add a second step – asking clarifying questions (checking for understanding and basic facts) before getting into deeply probing questions or moving on.

The third step is to predict what will happen. Maybe look at multiple things that should happen if my assumptions are correct and if people are acting on them. I can ask “What might happen if this is true?” and “What should not happen?” Then when things happen instead of asking “how could they have missed that?” or “does that prove my hypothesis?”, I can ask “What would drive that?” and “What else could explain that?”

In short the cure is to remain curious rather than creating and testing a hypothesis. This is something that it too me a while to conclude, because testing hypotheses is such a good approach to so many things.

I am not sure if you agree with my final statement, because your might have a different “background knowledge and experience” to me. Certainly my experience of testing hypotheses is that, done well, it is a low cost way of learning, but sometimes I find that learning is lost on others, not because they were not there, but because they are processing the information differently to me, or they know something I do not, that is impacting their judgement.

You will struggle to convince me that the curse of knowledge does not exist or that it has a strong impact on coaching, but as for the cure to the curse, you might be able to convince me that there are other approaches.

Am I right? Is natural curiousity the way to beat the curse? Or is there a different answer?

However if I am testing my hypothesis there is a strong risk that, regardless of how clear I think it is, others are not so clear. The curse of knowledge is assuming or believing that they should be clear, while the “removal of the curse” is to observe and learn without pre-judgement.

My take on Mindset Tax in coaching

I recently wrote about “coaching tax” and suggested that we should focus on making sure we optimise our “time on task” when coaching, but I got the idea for a coaching tax from the concept of the “Mindset Tax.”

In this article I want to look at the difference between a mindset tax (the time spent not being able to grow) and a thinking trap (being trapped in your own unhelpful story or thinking pattern). Both are relevant to coaching and it helps to be aware of them.

Defining the term “mindset tax”

Mindset tax is the wasted time and frustration that is spent not learning from feedback

When coaching, we want people to gain new insights or commit to new actions. We want them to ask themselves great questions, see through their biases and accept feedback in a way that allows them to grow. This is not always what happens at the start of a coaching conversation though.

Sometimes people ask for feedback but really they want validation or they want to complain about something. A coach can validate people and also listen to people unleashing their frustrations in a safe environment. This is not really leading to growth, so it is not really the goal of coaching. However it may be a necessary step to allow someone to be ready to deal with something in a way that leads to growth. Hence we could say it is a “tax” or loss of thinking power on the way to growing.

In short, mindset tax is the resistance that someone has to learning from experience, feedback or coaching. It is the mental effort spent denying or stressing about feedback rather than learning from it.

In more detail

Coaches sometimes talk about having a growth mindset, or an agile mindset or an open mind. When we say things like this we mean that people should be open to the opportunity to grow and that they see feedback as a source of learning rather than a judgement about their ability or character.

Importantly though, nobody has a perfect growth mindset at all times around all issues. We all have a growth mindset in some areas, where we are open to feedback, love to be challenged and are willing to spend time and effort to improve. We also have other areas where we are not ready to receive feedback (having a closed mind or defensive attitude) or where we either believe that we are naturally good at something or naturally bad.

I know that I love doing jigsaw puzzles even though they frustrate me. Every breakthrough brings me closer to my goal (which is to stop needing to put the puzzle together). I see the struggle as a fun challenge. Sometimes I love help and sometimes I would prefer to sit by myself because I want to work it out on my own.

This can be a mixed blessing if I am at work and you are relying on me solving a “puzzle” though. Perhaps you have insights to share when I want to be left on my own to solve the puzzle. This might involve you getting my permission to receive your help. In coaching we call this “contracting” and it is an important first step to any coaching conversation.

If we are not aligned on whether (and how) I want you help or the help you plan to give me, then we are off to a bad start.

Once we agree that you will help me to solve my jigsaw puzzle, you can share observations and listen to my angst as I try to work things out. Our coaching conversation has begun.

But this is where Mindset tax comes in. You might ask questions and I might answer them, but I am saying what I think you want to hear (you suggest I start with the corners of the puzzle and I say you are really insightful, when what I really think is that I cannot find the corners and your comments are not helping). This wasted conversation is a “tax” on the coaching effort since it is wasting time that could be spent on helping me to solve my puzzle.

Specifically mindset tax is the effort we must spend to overcome my fixed mindset – the belief that I cannot change. Until we tackle my lack of belief that change is possible, it is unlikely that I will change. You will ask good open questions and I will give the answers that need to be given, while not learning.

Some examples of mindset tax

I have stolen the term “mindset tax” from people who coach teachers. It is generally used to refer to the “four horsemen of the fixed mindset (apocalypse) and you can get a good description of it here.

I think of it more broadly though so I have added a fifth horseman. Let me run through what I see as the chief distractors of coaching, or the common forms of mindset tax.

Should not want

One of the most common impediments to growth that I encounter when coaching is people thinking that I am there to help them with what they should be doing or should be better at.

People want to know “What is the Correct version of Scrum to apply here” or they don’t know how to influence executives to turn up for their meetings and want me to tell them how to do it.

There is a time for me to instruct people in how to do something, but that is not coaching. That is instruction, or process improvement or process adoption … or mindset tax.

It is mindset tax in two cases:

  1. I think I know better than you do how you should do your job. I start lecturing you or “coaching” you to be more like me.
  2. You are trying to do the right thing, as defined by others, rather than deciding what
    • You personally think the challenge or opportunity is for you to tackle;
    • What you would personally like to see happen; or
    • What you can learn from this.

In the first case, where I allow my ego act as a tax on our coaching, the solution is for me to move to a coaching stance (listen to understand, reflective listening, feedback based on observation etc). If I want to be a good coach then I need to develop good “tax minimisation” routines. That single concept is probably worthy of a whole book on coaching.

On the other hand, if I really do think that I know better than you and want to tell you what to do, then maybe I should not call it coaching, as such. It might be “performance coaching” in the way some HR people in Australian refer to the process of me setting clear expectations of your role and then you either agreeing to meet them or be fired from your job. It might be management or instruction where you are will to learn by doing what I tell you to do and then seeing if it works or it might just be me bossing you around.

Where you feel the need to meet my standards (or the expectations of your mother, or the expectation of being a Steve Jobs) then the answer if probably for me to use reflective listening and to help you see your own story clearly so that you can decide for yourself what to do with these expectations.

The four original horsemen

So, let’s get back to my jigsaw, or better yet to an area where I still fight having a fixed mindset. Let’s say that I want to get better at cooking (which I do) but that I truly suck as a cook (which I do). You offer to help me learn to cook and I am grateful for the help, though to tell you the truth I doubt I can actually become a great cook (which is not true but is a bias I have).

When you ask me about my cooking I use jokes to distract from the conversation because I have a fixed mindset. You help me to see this and we agree that I will cook while you observe and give feedback, both as I cook and as you eat the result of my cooking.

I start to cook a meat pasty, following the recipe. I look to you for advice by you say “I am coaching not telling” and I persist with a little nervousness.

I successfully cook some meat and vegetables in some pastry and it looks roughly like a pasty should look. Unfortunately it tastes a bit bland.

You could say “that is awesome and yummy – keep doing that” but that will not help me. Instead you say that you find it a bit bland and that maybe some more sauce would help or maybe some salt or something.

You are right – I suck

The first horseman of the fixed mindset is “you are right, I suck.”

In this case I would hear your feedback (this is bland) but would hear it as confirmation that I am a bad cook. I might reply that I really screwed up and that I always cook bland things.

This is an invitation for you to feed my doubt and spend the session trying to enable my whining. OR it is a chance for you to expose my mindset tax so that we can minimise it and get back to my goal of improving.

By listening and reflecting on what I say, you might help me a whole lot – paying off the tax and allowing us to focus on growth. This will happen even faster if we both understand the concept of mindset tax and can spot it quickly – then you can just call it out.

You are wrong – I rock

The opposite of deciding I suck at cooking because this pasty was a bit bland is to dismiss your feedback as wrong or irrelevant so that I can feel good about my cooking. Again – if I have a fixed mindset, your feedback is about whether I am a good or bad cook, not about whether my cooking of pasties can be improved so I can become a better cook.

I might say that I like bland pasties and that your taste is just different to mine. I might deflect to talk about how I got the pastry cooked well and that the shape was kind of pasty-like. These points might be things that I can build on, but I am raising them as a way to avoid confronting the blandness of the pasty.

Again you can listen reflectively to me or you can restate your feedback in different ways. This is, however, taking time away from a potential discussion of how to predict and reduce blandness, or how to add some more flavour. If we both know to watch out for this mindset tax then we can call it out, put it aside and consider the feedback you are giving on its own merits.

Blame it on the rain

At work, I often find myself being asked to coach “them.” By that I meant that the person I am coaching wants someone else to change or someone else to “just get it.” This might be fair enough, but it is a distraction from the discussion about how the person I am coaching might deal with the other people or behave in a way that changes the situation. I often remind people of this by saying that “They might (blah) but I cannot coach them if they are not in the room, I can only coach you. What is the challenge here FOR YOUY?”

More generally though, this is a case of “blame it on the rain.” This, our next horseman is where I blame an issue on one off circumstances or factors that are not in my control.

There is an element of truth in what I say – for example if it was raining then that might have impacted what I did.

In the case of my bland pasty, it might be true that I had a brand of “Worcestershire sauce” in my pastry. It might also be true that the oven was not a good one or that the vegetables that I was forced to use were a bit old. All of these might be true and I might blame them for the blandness of the pastry. However if I just say this to deflect from thinking about what I will do next time then I will not try something new and will not change.

When coaching, it is common to have people blame the rain (the workshop room, the group being tired, the sauce being bland) rather that question their own actions and contribution to the outcome. Similar to “I rock” they are discussing everything except the thing they could change.

I guess you know the solution here then – reflective listening and calling it out as an observation.

Optimist without a cause

The last horseman is one that sounds harmless and that I am often a victim of, but it is one that inhibits change and it relates to saying what I think I should say rather than thinking deeply about my cooking (or coaching)>

The optimist without a cause is the person who accepts that feedback or states their own insight and then says they will change, but has no plan to do so.

I might say that I agree that the pasty is bland and thankyou for the feedback.

“Next time,” I say, “I will add more flavour.”

Unfortunately though, I won’t. I have no plan for how to improve and I have not really decided to do anything. We can end out cooking session on a high note, but with no commitment to do anything concrete.

This is often where the coach needs to end the session, ensuring that the cook (coachee) has really absorbed the new insight, or committed to a new action or experiment. When you call out my optimism, you can then ask “so, what specifically could you do differently?”


Coaching is good and it is really rewarding. However, the people who most need coaching are generally the people who also have the best defenses to avoid change.

I like to discuss the concept of mindset tax with people (and teams) that I coach, so I can call it out when I see it and we can minimise it. Then, when coaching, I practice spotting the taxes as they appear.

If we can reduce these 5 things then growth will be faster (and I might move from bland pasties to decent pasties and even pies when I cook):

  1. “Should do” thinking versus “what I really want” thinking
  2. You are right – I suck
  3. You are wrong – I rock
  4. Blame it one the rain
  5. Optimist without a cause

Tweaked goal – more action

I find that when I set goals, I often need to test them out and then refine them. No matter how hard I think about things up front, I always find room for improvement as soon as I start pursuing the goal.

I recently set a goal of “read someone else’s writing once a fortnight” because I thought I should make more time for reading.

This seemed good at the time but I now realise it was pretty bad.

Firstly “reading” was ill defined. I skim a lot of articles but rarely read them properly.

So I decided to tweak it pretty quickly to be “Read and summarise an article or piece of work” every week, sometimes missing a week but never two.

That seems good, but it not helping with my emerging goal to stop being boring and actually read some things for pure enjoyment – SF books, history books, maybe crime or mystery things.

So now I have a competing goal of

  • Spend some time reading something interesting with no agenda; versus
  • Read and summarise something useful every week, sometimes missing the week but never missing two.

My first goal would better read – Spend some quality time reading once a day (maybe miss a day but never two).

Or maybe this is one goal too many.

For the next week I will persist with my three goals of:

  • My writing goal (not negotiable)
  • My reading goal of either spending some time reading non work stuff each day (missing one day by never two) OR reading one thoughtful and useful piece of writing (a chapter of a book or an article) and summarise it for myself once per week.

I will try this for another week or two and then prune my goals to hone in on the things I want.

Never miss the goal twice

At the start of this year, I wanted to get back into writing. I used to keep a journal and I have maintained this blog for a long time. I was still writing some presentations and workshops at work but I missed writing entire training courses and user guides.

The problem was that I did not have a big dream or vision for a world changing novel and the people at work were not looking for a whole new agile training curriculum.

So I decided to start small and commit to writing 2 blog articles a month. It was a good goal because it was clear and it led to action. Maybe it was not a great goal because it has not led to a “value based outcome.” There was no target of boosting readership, educating people in something new or making money.

The goal has been working well for me because of a couple of things that I learned a long time ago, from books like Atomic Habits and from trying to create new habits at work.

The first is that it was simple, so I actually knew in concrete terms what to do.

It was also small. This is important for me because I am a procrastinator who can get overwhelmed by large goals. The bigger the thing the more I think I should plan it properly and the more I think I should plan it properly, the more I ponder it without moving to an experiment or small action. I have found that, for me, I need to identify a small first step to get momentum.

I also created a “forcing function” of telling myself that there was a deadline every week. People who know me, however, know that I work in bursts of enthusiasm and I can defer little things indefinitely while I take on new adventures. This is bad because I almost become immune to outstanding tasks or expectations that I am missing. For example if we stop following the agenda in our important meetings, I feel a twinge of guilt the first time, then less and then less until the “we should stick to our agenda” comments are really just talk.

So, for me there is one more thing that I need with any new habit or long term goal. I need a “falling off the wagon strategy.” This is my plan B for when I fall short of my expectations.

It may not sound good, but I do actually plan to fail. I think about what will happen when I do not achieve my (simple) goal. For me this is important, because I often have several false starts and several “work emergencies” that distract me for a short time. But once I fall short of my goal, it is too easy for me to become immune to doing that.

The strategy I used this time was “never miss it twice.”

I said that I would write a blog article once a fortnight (yay – achieved). But in fact I also said to myself that it would be a good stretch to write weekly, but if I do not, I will never miss writing an article two weeks in a row.

This gives me a stretch target of once a week, but an escape clause where I can miss it if I have a really full on week and need to take a break.

This works for me because, even if I miss a goal, I can start again. This takes the pressure off for me and gives me a greater feeling of agency/ the ability to make a choice.

It also works by tricking my procrastinator soul though. Every time I decide to miss my deadline for a week, it means that I have a hard, unavoidable, deadline next week. The thought of this hard deadline with no choice then causes me to think that I might have a full on week and no choice and that seems stressful.

Even though I have not had a stressful week, my brain decides to avoid it and the easiest way to do that is to publish a short article and then keep my options open for next week.

I don’t know if it will work as well for you, but it works really well for me – I hate being the victim of a locked in commitment next week and I am happy to commit to a small commitment this week. I am also comfortable that I can forgive myself if I miss this week, since I have my plan B … which makes the commitment this week even smaller and less intimidating.

The goal itself has not achieved a lot, other than me practicing writing, but it has actually led me to start taking on some small writing opportunities at work, because I can see how easy it is to just write something. Since my goal is simply to enjoy writing, that is enough to claim victory.

However I also find that I need to stretch my goals a little as I go, otherwise I end up with a bunch of obligations.

So it is time to either prune my goal or tweak it. For now, I have decided to tweak it.

  • I will not write AND EDIT one thing a fortnight, but not with a fixed date deadline. I think editing takes me longer than writing and often creates the best benefit;
  • I will still commit to this being done between once a week and once a fortnight, but never missing 2 weeks in a row; and
  • I will read someone else’s writing once a fortnight, so I see am exposed to both good ideas and the writing style of others. This can be a short story, SF book chapter or a piece of agile philosophy. Again it will be once a week sometimes and once a fortnight other times but I will not miss two weeks in a row.

So far it is working better than a broad wish based goal or “I wish I had time to write more.” Hopefully I will now make some time for both reading and writing on a regular basis.