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The Curse of Knowledge

The “curse of knowledge” is an insidious trap of organizational communication.

The expression refers to a pattern that we observe regularly – a leader is so deeply knowledgeable about a topic that he cannot see the gap that exists between his level of familiarity with the subject and that of the employees around him. While this can be a frustrating disconnect, it becomes dangerous when it comes to change communication and employee engagement.

For example, several years ago a client organization’s CEO announced that as part of the organization’s vision for the future, the priority was going to be “velocity”. The CEO made it clear that her expectation from staff was velocity. Quietly, employees were left wondering: “What does she mean?” “What are we supposed to do to meet her velocity goal?” “Does she mean we are supposed to do everything fast, even if mistakes are made?” “I am a quality assurance specialist – how am I supposed to ‘do’ velocity?”

In the absence of shared meaning about the key goal of velocity, employees were left confused, anxious and destabilized… probably precisely the conditions that ran contrary to the intention of the stated goal.

In another case, an organization we collaborated with was struggling with the challenge of getting “Transformation” off the ground. Through employee interviews and confidential surveys, the problem became clear: while the CEO spoke passionately about his commitment to “Transformation” no one really knew what, exactly, the term meant. More specifically, employees struggled to understand whether it meant an IT overhaul, a business transformation, or somehow both. The consequence of this confusion was predictable: employees were dis-engaged from Transformation and the confusion around these terms that were bandied about for several months became a breeding ground for cynicism and apathy.

In both of these cases, the CEOs using the terms “velocity” and “Transformation” were brilliant individuals with strong communication skills and a deep understanding of the concepts they were advocating. Their day-to-day interactions merely served to entrench their sense of expertise and comfort with the concepts: being mindful of the importance of these new mantra statements, managers around them did not question the terms, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that everything was clear.

The antidote to the curse of knowledge is to challenge leaders to define key terms they are using, and publish that information. Even better, communicators are wise to set up opportunities for employees to engage in structured opportunities for conversations with executives to help animate their key strategic ideas, and have them come to life. The process of creating shared meaning around foundational concepts is the lifeblood of effective executive communication.


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