On a recent flight to New York I sat beside an energetic operations manager for a small bank. Hearing that I was a leadership consultant, he looked interested and started talking. “‘My problem,” he announced without my asking, “is that I have supervisors who just don’t use common sense when dealing with people.” To prove his point, he went on to share several examples of poor judgment used by his team. He continued, “The truth is, people don’t need training, they just need to use their common sense!”
In my experience, good leadership is far from common. I do believe that people possess wisdom that they don’t use. However, I find that leadership misfires are caused more by acting on false assumptions than by a deficit of common sense.
What we call ‘common sense’ is really a collection of personal experiences and knowledge that we assume everyone else shares. But it is rarely as common as we assume. I’m confident that what is ‘common sense’ to an African American from Harlem would be ‘foreign intelligence’ to a small town white southerner like me! And yet most of us tend to take our knowledge and experience for granted, label these ‘common sense,’ and then judge harshly those who don’t act in concert with our world-view.
Good intentions, unintended negative impact
By encouraging his people to “just use common sense,” it may have been my banker friend’s intention to reassure them. Perhaps they really DO know better, and they don’t need to learn anything new to be effective. Regardless, I’m sure his impact was different, especially since his supervisors get this “reassurance” only when they make a mistake or use bad judgment. What his people likely hear is “you should have done something differently, and would have if you’d done as I would have. You must be either stupid or incompetent.” Whatever they hear, it is likely demeaning, and discouraging.
In short, business leaders should strike from their language the phrase, ‘its just common sense.’ There is no such thing, and even if there was, there’s no way to use the term in a way that is empowering.
A Better Way
So what would help? I’m reminded of a boss’s intervention early in my career when I made an innocent, but expensive decision that defied “common sense.” I was new in sales with a firm that provided training programs. Planning a sales call for the next day, I requested our sales support people pull together participant binders for our three programs so I could use them as ‘show and tell.’ The firm was sales driven, and everyone jumped when they received a ‘request’ from sales. So I got my three binders just before leaving on the call.
Later, my boss asked me if I was aware of how angry sales support was with me. I was stunned. He then asked to hear my perspective. After listening, he smiled and said, “Now I understand where you were coming from. If I was in your shoes, I would have done exactly the same thing!” Then he shared information everyone else in the firm (but me) knew. “Those binders are really labor intensive to create. Each binder has 18 tabs, and each tab uses 3 different colors of paper. It’s not a simple matter of making a Xerox copies. Jean was here last night until 9:30 pulling these together for you.”
Noting my embarrassment, he added, “I realize that you couldn’t have known the impact of your request, and what I’m happiest about is that you were taking initiative.” This transformed my embarrassment to pride.
He continued, “But I think there is a bigger issue here. Using participant binders in a demo is probably not the best way to engage people about what we do.” Then he asked, “How did you plan to use them?” This led us to a memorable discussion that transformed how I think about developing client relationships. I use these insights even now, 25 years later.
My boss could have chosen to berate my lack of ‘common sense’ in making a thoughtless and last minute demand. Instead, by listening and understanding my well-intended (albeit flawed) thinking, he left me feeling educated and motivated.
Then we landed
As we pulled to our gate at La Guardia airport, I prepared to say goodbye to my banker friend. I realized that I had spent most of our flight listening with feigned interest to his proposition that ‘leadership is just common sense’ while I quietly formulated this article. I reflected that not once had my companion solicited my opinion or asked me a question. That is the ultimate irony for those that live by the myth of common sense. There simply is no room to consider that their own thinking may be pretty common.