The uncommon wisdom of rejecting ‘common sense’
Oh, the boundless fascinations of language. Specifically: the odd phrases that seep insidious into our daily vernacular — taken at face value and accepted as fact. And the way, over time, they come to perpetuate a skewed perspective.
One that particularly rankles is the perennial notion of common sense.
Used for centuries as a catch-all for any and every problem. Old mate who cut down a tree onto his own house? Completely bereft of common sense! Forgetting to spell-check the new pineapple before printing 46 million of them? A serious lapse in common sense! Putting lunch wrapped into tin foil into the office microwave? Born without a shred of common sense! The failings of society — oh yes, all due to the death of common sense.
But — what exactly is ‘common’?
The phrase implies we all share the same beliefs, values, past experiences, and expectations for life and work. It quashes the notion of the individual in favour of a collective with a singular way of seeing the world. It paints the entire of humanity with the same brush in a single colour of our own choosing.
Such brazen arrogance!
Humans are far too complex to cram into the same pigeon hole. Our workplaces comprise up to five generations; our teams composed of a wonderfully diverse and vibrant cross-section of humanity. Do all these people share exactly the same biology, upbringing, education and life experiences?
No. No they do not.
From a physiological perspective, common sense is utterly nonsensical. Sense is the faculty by which our body perceives and understands external stimulus. Raw sensory data, be it sight, sound, taste, smell or touch, is filtered and interpreted by our brain, and because two brains can be wired very differently, two people can perceive the same stimulus in completely different ways.
Remember the dress photo that circulated the socials back in 2015? Was it black and blue? Or white and gold? Though the dress was eventually revealed to be black and blue, no consensus was ever reached about the image. Despite trusting our senses to provide us with a universally accurate picture of the world, even a group with no colour vision deficiency can see the same colour very differently.
And so the notion of common sense is just as true and relevant today as it’s always been — a convenient, yet throwaway line that offers little except eschewing responsibility.
No-one intentionally sets out to perform badly at work. No-one intends to get injured on the job. And no-one hires someone who exhibits a total lack of common sense. Thus, logic suggests common sense isn’t to blame for poor job performance, mistakes, mishaps, or health and safety incidents.
No, the real problem often stems from a lack of experience, knowledge or understanding, leading to poor judgement†. And this is very fortunate indeed. Because, although there’s no cure for a deficit of common sense, there are certainly solutions to a lack of knowledge.
Share what matters
It likely goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway (because: no assumptions): if something matters, information needs to be shared.
We can’t assume anything is common knowledge, even if it seems completely obvious to us. The more diverse our teams and organisation, the more we need to question our assumptions.
Repetition builds recognition
Oh yes, this particular (and very quotable) maxim rings true. It’s not enough to share information once, tick the box and assume it’s been understood by everyone.
To form new memories, learn new skills and change behaviours requires our brain to form new neural connections. And this only happens through repetition.
So while inductions and onboarding are important, they’re simply the first touchpoint in an ongoing learning experience. Subsequent touchpoints are opportunities to share the same information in different ways to really embed it.
Make it memorable
Another potential obviousness: the more we can make information engaging and memorable, the more likely people are to remember it in the moment.
There’s plenty to unpack here — too much for this article — but at the very least, content needs to be clear, simple and relevant. Ideally, though, it should also use visual, humour, curiosity, emotions, and language to increase retention and recall.
Solitary versus systemic
Ironically, the ‘common sense’ argument turns a potentially universal problem into an individual anomaly.
Despite our best efforts, lapses in attention and judgement are inevitable, and freak incidents are bound to occur. However, if one person doesn’t understand something, it’s reasonable to assume others won’t either.
Rather than writing off a problem as an individual issue (a lack of common sense), let’s check there isn’t a wider lack of knowledge that can be addressed.
Just as a burlap sack fits everyone and no-one equally, sharing information in the same way across an entire organisation guarantees a universally tepid reception.
To ensure information connects, we need to consider the various segments, then cater the content, messaging, language, mediums and channels to their needs and preferences. One piece of communication can never be everything to everyone — we need to make it relevant.
Hack the senses
Imagine if we just could hack the brain to build commonality…
Good news, friends. Experiments have shown a good story is capable of generating the same emotions and sensory activity in the brain of the listener as experienced by the storyteller. This cognitive coupling is perhaps the closest we can get to a literal application of common sense.
Wherever possible, weaving important information into compelling narratives helps people see (and feel) things from the same perspective.
† Also: brain farts — to which there is (sadly) no known prophylactic.