Communication & The Curse of Knowledge

Why it's so damn hard to keep everybody on the same page

Before you start reading, I wanted to let you know that I have appeared as a guest on the latest episode of the Champagne Strategy podcast with John James!

John and I had a great discussion, covering a lot of topics about running a tech organisation, from measuring success, to keeping teams accountable, and what it means to be a good manager.

John says:

This is essential listening for CEO’s or founders at tech companies. It’s essential listing for Chief operations officers or other people in a managerial operational role.

Who am I to argue?

Check it out, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

A couple of years back, I was part of a leadership team that was trying very hard to be transparent in its communication. Yes, we mentioned it a lot to the company, but we really meant it. Our intention was to provide transparency on the state of the company, the reasons for decisions, our strategy, and so on. We thought we were doing a pretty good job.

But over on Glassdoor, a different story was unfolding:

OK, so one disgruntled employee. But then:

And then:

Uh-oh indeed. But also: what was going on? How could it be that we, as a leadership team, could be trying so genuinely to be transparent, and yet many within our team felt that we were not only failing, but lying?

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge describes the cognitive bias or limitation that makes it very difficult for humans to imagine what it would be like not to possess a piece of information, and hence to properly put themselves in the shoes of somebody with less knowledge than them.

Imagine that a colleague of yours has confided that they are pregnant, and sworn you to secrecy. Whenever you observe them, that knowledge colours your perception. When they repeatedly cradle their belly, when they fail to have their usual glass of wine of Friday afternoon, when they take more bathroom breaks than they used to, it all seems so obvious. How is it that none of your colleagues appear in the least bit aware of these changes in behaviour and what they signify?

To put yourself in the position of somebody who did not already know that critical piece of information, to imagine how you would (or would not) interpret your colleague’s actions in the absence of that knowledge, takes a great deal of effort. And even when making that effort, the act of empathy will be only partly successful. You cannot un-know something.

That is the Curse of Knowledge.

It is a curse because it dooms the knower to failures of empathy, and because it increases the cognitive distance between a knower and a not-knower. In that distance emerge misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

The Curse & Transparency

So now you’re a senior leader in an organisation. You know what’s happening, from the overall business environment, through to the different personalities on the board, a whole lot of sensitive data on business performance, some upcoming regulatory challenges, and a couple of resignations of key personnel that have not yet been made public.

Imagine that, in mind of the above factors, you’re about to make a few changes to the strategic focus of the company. You step up in front of the whole organisation, reiterate your commitment to transparency, and tell them what is happening (and why).

You’ve shared the change in good faith and yet, somehow, the message doesn’t land. You hear later (if you’re lucky) that people are grumbling about the decision and the reasons given. You said one thing last quarter, and have now totally contradicted yourself. Your reason for shutting down Project A doesn’t make sense, and some people suspect an ulterior motive. There are some rumours that the decision to increase investment in Project B was made in order to further the career of an individual said to be favoured by the CEO.

What just happened?

The Curse of Knowledge just happened.

Your audience didn’t know that the end of a large partnership has rendered Project A unviable. Nor did they know that there will soon be a change in regulations that require a greater in investment in Project B for it to succeed. And that thing you said that contradicted what you said last time? You had discussed this in the leadership team and some compelling data was presented that shed new light on the matter. When new evidence became available, you changed your mind (as you should have).

You could have told your team all these things, but you didn’t. Not because you didn’t want to tell them, but simply because it didn’t occur to you. You knew all these things, and so they were rendered obvious to you. So obvious, in fact, that they did not bear repeating; you failed to put yourself in the shoes of your audience, and you simply forgot to share the context that would have allowed everybody to make sense of the changes that you announced.

The Curse of Knowledge has made your much-vaunted transparency look like little more that hypocritical posturing. People don’t forget hypocrisy: it will end up on Glassdoor.

Communication Heuristics to Battle the Curse

The Curse of Knowledge cannot be fully defeated. However, there are a couple of things you can do to keep it at bay.

The first, and most important, is to overcommunicate. What exactly is meant by overcommunicating? To me, it is two things: (1) repeat your key messages a lot more often than seems reasonable or comfortable; and (2) when in doubt about whether your audience has a particular piece of important context, always err on the side of providing that context.

Overcommunication may seem inefficient but when it comes to communication, robustness is far more important than efficiency. Remember that the costs are asymmetric: communicate too much and you pay the cost of small amounts of wasted time, but communicate too little and it could lead to major disasters.

The second “trick” is to slow down and explicitly consider what your audience does and does not know. Our minds are not intuitively good at doing this, so taking a more systematic approach to audit the key pieces of knowledge and context that underlie and justify a decision is a valuable practice.

A Culture of Transparency

The best (though not the easiest) way to fight the Curse is by creating a culture that acknowledges its existence and simply… works around it.

This is a culture of trust where every person at every level of the company trusts each other’s intentions, is vulnerable and open to human weaknesses, and is comfortable seeking to fill knowledge gaps.

In such a culture, leadership communication doesn’t end with grumbling about lack of transparency, but rather with a robust Q&A session in which knowledge gaps are discovered and remedied in real time. Note that simply creating a Q&A session is not enough, as it is the culture that empowers all employees to ask the difficult questions.

How can you create such a culture? Read my article about changing culture to find out!

Join the Conversation

Do you have thoughts or experiences on transparency within your organisation? Please leave a comment below!

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