Working in collaboration with others is especially effective when we can rely on what we tell each other about matters related to the work. When we're imprecise in what we say, those who rely on what we've said are more likely to reach incorrect conclusions that can lead to delays and expensive rework. For example, when Joyce asks James whether the meeting addressed the question of delays in Joyce's work, James does Joyce a disservice if he tries to "smooth over" some of the complaints he heard about Joyce's delayed efforts. She might not realize how urgent it is for her to complete her work, and that can harm the team's efforts.
Below is a little catalog of ways we acquire knowledge in everyday work life. Some are less reliable than others.
- I saw it/heard it myself
- Seeing with your own eyes, or hearing with your own ears, might seem to be the best way to acquire actual knowledge. But over the past 70 years or so, psychology researchers have uncovered an array of phenomena that distort our perceptions. Certainly some of the data we take in is definitive, but not all of it is.
- Be careful about how you interpret what you perceive.
- Someone told me
- With respect to reliability, the word of other witnesses is second only to witnessing the events yourself. But since witnesses are subject to phenomena that distort perceptions, what they report is also affected. And their ability to articulate what they witnessed is imperfect. Imperfect also is our own ability to gather and interpret the reports of first-hand witnesses.
- Relying on the Do we actually have knowledge and
expertise sufficient for forming
the conclusions we've reached?reports of others can extend your ability to gather information about the world around you. But the information you gather that way can be less reliable than what you gather from direct, personal observation. When you pass this information along to others, take care to also note who provided it to you.
- I deduced
- If we have sufficient knowledge and expertise, we can often deduce novel and important conclusions from what we or others observe. But an open question remains: do we actually have knowledge and expertise sufficient for forming the conclusions we've reached? Is our deduction correct?
- When considering questions of human motivation or interpersonal dynamics, deciding whether our knowledge or expertise is sufficient can be difficult indeed. Apply the rule of three: If you can't think of three different conclusions that could be drawn from the data you have, keep thinking. [Weinberg 1993]
- I searched for it but I couldn't find it
- Unsuccessful searches for things or information are frequently cited as proof of nonexistence. They are no such thing. An unsuccessful search is merely evidence that the search produced a null result. Perhaps the search technique was faulty. Perhaps the searcher misapplied the search technique.
- The question of awareness is a related misinterpretation. It is risky to conclude that something didn't occur just because "I would know about it" if it did. Beware making faulty conclusions on the basis of searches that produced null results.
- I recall
- Recall — reconstructing data from memory — is a notoriously unreliable process. Yet we rely on it nevertheless. We use recall, for example, to determine who said what to whom, and when they said it. And we use recall even when we have access to records that are far more reliable. We do so probably because recall is so much more convenient compared to locating recordings or written records.
- In high-stakes controversies, relying on recall alone is risky. The main advantage of recall is convenience. Use recall to provide guidance to accelerate searches through records and recordings. Use records and recordings for evidence.
- That's the way it works/used to work/always has worked
- When explaining the results of a procedure, we necessarily apply what we know about how the procedure normally works. For example, with respect to a search that failed to find a version of an important document from an effort that was completed last year, we might "know" that all approved versions would have been archived and sealed. The failure to locate the version we wanted might then mean that it was never approved. But failure to locate it could also happen if the document file was misnamed.
- Things don't always work they way we believe they do. Keep an open mind when interpreting the results of formal procedures and automated tools.
- I asked them and they never heard of it/don't know about it
- This comment is logically equivalent to a failed search, where the field being searched is the knowledge of other people. What distinguishes this approach is that it implicitly invokes the authority of the people whom the searcher consulted. Without saying so, the searcher is implying that if these authoritative people don't have the information, the information must not exist.
- There are two problems with this tactic. First, the people consulted might not actually be authoritative. And second, the stature of the people being consulted might not be accepted or appreciated by the people to whom the searcher conveys the result.
When we examine carefully what we know and what we don't know, we're likely to find that what we know is far less than we expected, and what we don't know is far more than we expected. At least, that's been my experience. But what do I know? Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: II
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions
of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool
called the Johari window.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power
- Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite)
requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal
- Ethical Debate at Work: I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad
decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate.
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine
which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's
ability to collaborate.
- Unintended Condescension: I
- Condescending remarks can deflect almost any conversation into destructive directions. The lost productivity
is especially painful when the condescension is unintended. Here are two examples of remarks that others
might hear as condescension, but which often aren't intended as such.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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