There is No Such Thing as Common Sense

I know. That’s a big claim. Read it again. There is no such thing as common sense. Consider this. Have you ever said, “Really, how could they do that? Isn’t it common sense?” If so, then I am already getting your buy-in because if common sense truly existed, we would not need to ask!

I used to be a manager at a hotel. In that capacity, I ran the valet department. The valets used back-in parking for every single car they parked in our garage because it provided an unobstructed view when leaving the space, allowing us to retrieve cars faster. Do you use back-in parking every time you park your vehicle? Every single time? (If you own a large truck or SUV – you may say yes). If you don’t then you probably don’t have a reason to back it in every single time. But wait, it’s common sense for any valet to back in a vehicle – isn’t it common sense for you too?!?! This example illustrates there isn’t a generally accepted common sense way to park your vehicle. However, when we do something for a particular reason, we start to believe it is common; that everyone holds the same belief and will behave the same way.  

Here’s the thing. Common sense is only true when that information is commonly known. Therein lies the rub as well as the importance of discussing this topic. At University of Colorado Boulder, I often hear people talk about performance and behavior expectations as if they are common sense. But let me ask you this, how regularly and frequently do you explicitly declare, renegotiate, and repeat norms and expectations in your workspace? If we want the saying, “that’s common sense” to be true, we need to do a better job making that information known. If you want a particular behavior on your team, or in your classroom, to be ‘common’ sense, you have to talk explicitly about the expected behaviors. 

Years ago, on the first day of a job, I had a manager inform me that staff meetings started about 10 minutes late. I thought, it’s common sense to start meetings on time! If the meeting is scheduled for 8:00 am, I expect it to start at 8:00 am. So, imagine if he hadn’t conveyed this group norm. What would my experience have been when my colleagues consistently showed up late to our meetings? I would have been stuck on the idea that it’s common sense to start meetings on time! My expectation wouldn’t have been met, which would have eroded trust and negatively impacted my engagement. But the manager made the meeting start time clear. I now knew that for this team, it was common sense to start meetings about 10 minutes late. 

I offer you this. Operate from the context that nothing is common sense or commonly known. In our work roles, our personal relationships; anytime we are interacting with another human being – get in the habit of making every single thing as explicit and well known as possible. Doing this regularly will have profound, positive impacts on trust, accountability, communication, and dealing with conflict. Try it out for a while and see the results you get. I bet you’ll be signing to the tune “there is no such thing as common sense” in no time! 

By: Lauren Harris, MS, CPTM, Training & Development Manager at University of Colorado Boulder

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