In a recent project planning meeting at a client’s site, the discussion centered around the need to coordinate with a contractor about a certain element of the job task. The communication seemed relatively basic to those of us in the room, so one person, reasonably, brought up that perhaps we didn’t need to have this coordination with the contractor. After all, they should already know this stuff, right? One of the employees, the most experienced engineer in the room, just a few months from retirement, replied, “What seems like common sense depends on the person. My common sense is based on my experience working at this plant and the projects I’ve worked on, whereas the contractor’s common sense is based on their experience and knowledge.”
In our lives, people give us nuggets of knowledge all the time. Many are ignored, and most we only realize the wisdom of the words in retrospect. This case was one of those rare times where you realize the wisdom of the words in the moment, and everyone in the room knew it. What a great piece of wisdom!
We talk about common sense, as if everyone has it, and then we derisively talk about how uncommon it is. Why? Because we see people doing things that look stupid to us, that seem like someone with common sense wouldn’t do, and we conclude that that person does not have common sense. But think about this for a second. If it were true that we could hold people to some standard of “common sense”, that assumes that common sense is some stable body of knowledge and understanding of our environment that people can have, but some do not. Common sense becomes a standard, a line we can compare ourselves and others to. In a way, it exists outside of us, separate from us.
But is this right? We are reminded of the time we were doing a ride-along assessment with a gentleman who worked in the mountainous, rural part of the state, and he was pointing out that his job required a certain level of unorthodox hazard assessment. For example, he mentioned that one need to know that if they see a cow in a field standing all by itself, that is not a cow, but rather a bull, and therefore a situation that people should avoid. This was common sense to him, and after he said it, it sure did seem like common sense to us. But we would not have known this without someone telling us (and we assume he was not born with this knowledge either).
This begs the question – if the knowledge of the lone cow in the field being dangerous is common sense, why did we not know it? Is it because we were or are unintelligent? Well, as much as some might disagree, we don’t think that’s the case. Rather, we think that the problem is that our belief in a stable, “out there” common sense is misleading. We think the wise engineer would point out that common sense is relative. We didn’t know about the dangers of cows because we never had to know this information. Most of our work is in urban or suburban environments, where there aren’t many cows or open fields for us to trek though. Our common sense is based on the environment we work in. The common sense of the worker we talked to was based on the rural and mountain environments he worked in. The wise engineer’s common sense was based on his experience in the chemical plant industry.
We think it’s time that we reevaluated this standard of “common sense” that we arbitrarily apply to people. It is based on old ideas of human cognition and intelligence, and is often used to put the blame for a problem on the person, rather than engaging in real problem solving. We need to stop thinking of “common sense” as some static idea that people can attain, and begin to see common sense as relative to each individual’s experience. Instead of common sense existing “out there”, waiting for us to attain it, the wise engineer would remind us that common sense exists inside each of us, and that our common senses may only partially overlap.
By changing the definition of common sense we increase our ability to solve problems. After all, if the problem is because the person is just stupid, i.e. they don’t have common sense, then our options for dealing with that problem are limited – we can only get rid of the person. But if we start to see common sense as relative, the number of potential solutions goes up exponentially. We can look at training, coaching, partnering, design of the work environment, design of the work system, etc.
More important, seeing common sense as relative helps us to take another step away from our knee jerk blame response that we consistently have, where we see the problem as one with the individual, not with the system. This, of course, requires a bit of empathy on our part. It requires us to attempt to see the world through the eyes of others. And when we do we will begin to see avenues for building collaboration and trust in the work environment. We start seeing people as having different pieces of the puzzle, rather than as having deficits that we must overcome. People become solutions to particular problems, rather than the problem themselves.