How Common is “Common Sense”?

This is a question that has been bugging me for a few years.

I used to take it for granted that “Common Sense” implies it is common, i.e. the largest denominator out there. Any normal people will have it, since we are mostly “common”.

Slowly I start to realize it is something precious, almost hard to come by. Whenever there is a new hire, a new team, some kind of new character popped up at work place, when we attempt to make a first assessment of said person, “he/she makes sense” becomes the most valuable characteristic. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when anyone is tagged with that pronouncement.

Consider this little episode, needless to say, pseudo names all around.

– Co-worker John and Jack are in the same department.
– Mel is John’s counterpart from a different department that they interact with constantly.
Trigger Event:
– Mel suggested to John in an email that John’s group should do activity A, Jack happened to be on that same email thread.
– Jack thought A is a grand idea, and thought what Mel really asked for was actually A1, A2, and A3, plus there would be more benefit to both groups, such as B, C, D that Mel probably hadn’t thought of . But they need to also consider E, F, G to make activity “A” truly executable and beneficial to all.
– John however went ahead and proposed to Mel that John’s group will do A-, which was essentially the literary translation of A minus all the potential benefit. As a result, it seemed to Jack, people will waste more time doing duplicate work, but achieve nothing more than if they dont’ do A- at all.
– So, not wanting to make John look bad in front of other departmental personal (btw, this might not sound like much, but this is one huge improvement for Jack cuz he was known to be non-tactful.) Jack countered John on a department internal email explaining his thought on A- in a very polite way, proposed his bullet points A1, A2, A3, B, C, D, E, F, G. with short description of each.
– John dug in his heels and insisted A- is all they needed and either avoided commenting on the rest of Jack’s proposal, or his comment didn’t seem to make any sense to Jack (not exactly surprising given how he interpreted Mel’s original proposal A).
– Meanwhile, Mel replied to John’s proposal and pointed out the exact shortcoming of A- just as Jack explained in the internal email, and also expanded her original proposal A to A1, and even made reference to B that was also on Jack’s list.

So now, Jack felt like he was in an “uh-ha” moment. In his mind, Mel totally made sense. And if jack could talk to Mel directly, they could have moved forward already and probably further refined jack’s list of bullet points to some actionable plan.

In other words, to Jack, Mel seems to have “common sense”, but John doesn’t. If Jack gets to work with Mel (i.e. people considered to have common sense) directly, then they will be more efficient. The relationship will be very pleasant. Things will seem very smooth.

or is it?

Maybe our definition of “common sense” is nothing more than “OUR” definition. In essence, each of us considers common might not be exactly common afterall? It will be more efficient if people who think alike get to work together. But it gets harder and harder to keep that “purity” or “homogeneity” as a company/work group grows.

On the other hand, maybe it depends on how you define as “success”. For Jack and people he found to have common sense, success means they get things done, on time and function as expected. For others, such as “John” in this little episode, maybe “success” means to do minimum work possible and not get into trouble and keep everyone above him happy.

So in John’s eyes, maybe jack’s the one who doesn’t have common sense. The fact Jack only countered him in an internal group email might still be considered “non-tactful” cuz there are other people from the department were left on the thread. Maybe in his eyes, the really right way for Jack to counter him is to email him directly. Cuz that seems to be John’s way of working so far, all very secretive or “discrete”, depends on your perspective.

The fact that Mel’s email validated Jack’s concern probably is a moot point in John’s mind, cuz ever since then, that topic seems to have disappeared from any discussion. Maybe John is going through his “discrete” individual emailing campaign that jack is not aware of.

Then came my second question, can “common sense” be taught?

Jack’s boss has been dealing with John(same John in previous example) for a while. He and Jack think alike, which means he is having trouble get his point across to John too. But he approaches it differently than Jack. He exhibited inhuman patience at educating John on every point, and he doesn’t give up when John failed to grasp the meaning over and over again. As a result, things that could be settled in one paragraph with jack, or another that has the same “common sense” as them, would take Jack’s boss a day, a week, even a month to explain to John, and at the end John still only gets like 40% of the full meaning of things.

Jack’s boss’ theory is it is better to teach the other to fish than to get the fish for him. Jack was agreeing with him when he just figured out that theory of his. But now he is not so sure.

Because the reason Jack’s boss is spending the time to educate John, is that he has the assumption that common sense could be taught. For example, if he is spending 40 hours educating John on event 1, John would learn to deal with event 2 in a slightly improved way, by then Jack’s boss only needs to spend 20 hours handholding John on event 2, 10 hours on event 3, etc. etc. and eventually John can be brought into the same camp and things will become easy.

What if that value of time spent hand-holding doesn’t diminish as Jack’s boss has hoped? what if he needs to spend 40 hours to teach John how to fish every single kind of fish?

While it would only take Jack’s boss 5 hours to get the fish for John?

What makes sense in that scenario?

Jack’s ex-boss has an even better strategy. In our fisherman metaphor it could be translated into “let John starve.” At the time when Jack first heard of this strategy, he was disgusted. It seemed cruel and mean. But in hindsight, Jack started to realize the brilliance of that strategy.

We are not trying to promote cruelty to unlucky fisherman. One backstory i haven’t mentioned in our little theater is that John is somehow connected with Jack’s boss’ boss’ boss. So one must be careful around him. Not giving support to John and being seen as opposing to John all the time (too much counter argument against John’s suggestions for example) are equally dangerous.

But i digress.

Back to our Common Sense question. Just like i’m not convinced that Jack could teach his set of “common sense” to people who don’t get it, i’m equally convinced that Jack probably won’t be able to subscribe to John’s own set of “common sense” any time soon. My suggestion to Jack was to mix both his ex-boss and his current boss’ strategy. He should voice his counter argument at least once, state his objection and his rational once. Get it on paper and in front of a group (i.e. a half-baked measure of his boss’s strategy, cuz he shouldn’t waste his time trying to educate John on everything he doesn’t get on Jack’s first try). Then Jack should shut up and watch (here enters Jack ex-boss’ strategy).

We will wait and see.

Meanwhile, i dug out some really good advice list i got from a friend in my first job and shared it with Jack. Re-reading it now still seemed really valuable. He totally makes sense! 🙂 (back story: At the time i was having trouble with one particular reportee who didn’t seem to have “common sense”. So i went to my friend for advice. Gosh! It was almost 10 years ago!!)

Everyone, no matter what position on the team, has to have ownership (or at least feel like they do!) of SOMETHING. People hate feeling like they are not being useful, or that their ideas are being ignored, or that they have no chance to affect the outcome.

Everyone can make a valuable contribution in some way. Sometimes you just have to figure out a person’s unique way of contributing. The answer that you get when everyone has contributed will always, no questions, be better than the answer had you come up with it alone.

No one thinks like me, as much as I hate it. Patience is soooo important. Honesty and immediate direct feedback is always the best, even if it is painful. You have to lay the groundrules for how this guy behaves on the team and interacts with others; if he’s being immature or can’t take criticism or whatever, let him know that his approach is unacceptable and why. Then let him know that if it continues his eval will say so. Then, if he still doesn’t change, blow it off. There’s nothing that you can do so don’t stress about it.

Humor, levity, and a certain lack of seriousness can be helpful in relating to others. At the end of the day, people at work are just that: people at work.

One thought on “How Common is “Common Sense”?

  1. I once learned on an early childhood education class that some common senses are learned, or should be taught, in early childhood. Our book listed the ‘typical failures in common senses’ of children in 3-6 years old, such as:

    Show a child two identical glasses, A, B, both full of water, ask the child ‘which glass has more water in it?’ The child would answer: ‘both glasses have the same amount of water’. Then, transfer the water from glass A to C, a slimmer but taller one, and ask the same question on B and C. For sure if the child was asked for the first time on this kind of question, you will get the answer ‘C contains more water than B does’, just because the water level in C is higher than that in B.

    and other similar types of failures, mostly, relate to laws as ‘conservation of mass’ (because these common senses are easier to explain and test I think).

    Of course, if the parent or teacher worked with their children on these failures to make sure children well understand what happened, the children would benefit a lot from his/hers early childhood education, because later on, she/he knows the ‘trick’ behind things and won’t be so confused when facing complicated procedures/steps, or when making judgments/decisions.

    There are some evidences showing that certain brain cells or nerves can get connected at those moments when one speaks to himself: ‘oh, that is how it works’, ‘Oh, now I see’. Then the next time in the similar situation, the brain works more efficiently and faster since certain nerves are already connected.

    Well, today I learned ‘People at work are just that: people at work.’. someday it will make something easier for me 🙂

    Jean’s Reply:
    Hi, Thank you for such an insightful and informative comment…

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