THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE – OR WHAT IS LACKING IN YOUR CORPORATE COMMUNICATION

I was talking recently with a client who felt drained by the constant resistance that she got from her team to any kind of change. 

You know“, she told me, “I just wanted them to log some simple information on each customer they speak to, but the kickback I got was as if I’d asked them to sell me their firstborn! Too much effort, we’re being too bureaucratic; the complaints went on and on… Seriously, can they not see that it would be good* for everyone if we had this information?”

The short answer is: NO! Her people did NOT see that this information could be useful. And there was a simple reason: This very lovely, committed and passionate-about-her-work-and-genuinely-caring-about-people manager had simply not explained to her team why she wanted this new information. 

What a rookie mistake!

But it’s a mistake that we commit every day – and most of the time we’re not even aware of it. Change management guru, John Kotter found that the need for change – the “why” is generally under-communicated by a factor of 10. No surprise people are resistant to change.

Most enlightened managers know that explaining the “why” the right thing to do. Not only does it give you the chance of getting buy-in and your clever people might point out helpful facts that you were unaware of, but, let’s be honest – it’s the right thing to do because it means treating your people like adults.

Yet, so many managers, just like my client, still don’t do it (enough). For many of them, the reason is that they’ve been cursed – with knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge is a concept illustrated by the 1990 Stanford experiment by Elizabeth Newton. In her study, Newton split the participants into two groups. One set of participants had to tap out the rhythm of well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday” with their hands on a table. The participants in the other group had to listen to the tapping and guess the name of the song. Prior to the experiment, the “tappers” were asked to predict how many songs the listeners would guess – most assumed about 50% of correct guesses.

However, the reality was very different: the listeners guessed only 2.5% of the 120 songs tapped out correctly. How come the predictions were so wrong?

The reason is, when a “tapper” taps out the rhythm, they cannot help but hear the song they are tapping in their head. To them, it’s loud and clear. However, the listeners only hear some strange knocking code and consequently struggle to guess the song.

The problem is that once we know something—the melody of a song, the vision for business growth, the reason for a change – we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us – leading to even the most empathetic managers to underestimate how much and how frequent they need to explain and communicate the “why” for their requests or behaviours. The results are misunderstanding and frustrations or downright rejection of ideas and requests.

So, next time you’re faced with frustrating resistance to something that seems “obviously” the right thing to do, ask yourself: have you explained the why?

*the information in question was about payment preferences, which would help the business find the best payment options for the customer – thus reducing costs for the customers and the business. And as the business operates a generous profit share scheme, yes, anything that improves the bottom line does actually benefit the employees, too!