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.


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