Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 27;   July 13, 2022: What Do We Actually Know?

What Do We Actually Know?


Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know.
A micrometer capable of measuring to ± .01 mm

A micrometer capable of measuring to ± .01 mm. The thickness of a human hair is about .07 mm. A mechanical device capable of this level of precision is indeed a wonder. Image by byrev courtesy Pixabay.com.

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.

Last words

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? Go to top Top  Next issue: Overt Verbal Abuse at Work  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Weinberg 1993]
Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 2: First-Order Measurement. New York: Dorset House, 1993. Order from Amazon.com. See page 90. Back

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More articles on Conflict Management:

A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
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Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
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We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
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Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.

See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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