The Curse of Knowledge

Isn’t this a contradiction of terms? An oxymoron? Can knowledge ever be a curse? Isn’t knowledge always meant to be beneficial? An advantage which some people hoard to give them competitive advantage for example. It’s impossible to be an expert or a specialist without significantly more knowledge than others, so why then can knowledge sometimes be considered a curse?

What are the implications for leaders? What is the curse of knowledge from a leadership perspective?

Have you ever played the game where you have to tap out the beats to a song while other people try to guess which song you have in your head? It’s surprisingly difficult. What seems obvious to us is almost impossible for others to guess because we have the curse of knowledge and they do not. It’s a kind of ‘cognitive bias’ and it’s very difficult for us to put ourselves in the other people’s shoes and to be mindfully aware of what we know that they don’t.

Let me give you another example.

Last week two directors of a client organisation sent out an email to all company employees detailing the plans for the annual Company Meeting. They were both very surprised that the email generated so many queries, questions and requests for clarification. What do you think happened? Was there a simple explanation regarding why their employees asked so many questions when both directors thought that their email had made perfect and logical sense? Yes. It was the curse of knowledge. Because the directors had more information and knew all of the answers to the questions, they wrote the email as if their employees also shared the same knowledge, – as if their employees knew the tune to the song they were humming, which of course the employees didn’t.

This is an important lesson for all of us to remember, especially if we are leaders managing change. You can’t assume that others know what you do; and being deliberately mindful of this will improve your communications significantly. This is one of the reasons why our model of Cognitive Fitness includes paying particular attention to considering situations and events from multiple perspectives and ‘other people’s shoes’. Not always easy, but always worth the effort.

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