Beware the Curse of Knowledge

October 3, 2016

Acquiring knowledge and know-how is critical to any professional – both for knowledge and manual workers. But with it brings some new disadvantages as well. The “curse of knowledge” is recognized as a “cognitive bias” that essentially means it is difficult or impossible to unremember or disregard information you possess. It seems that what you don’t know – as well as what you do know – can both hurt you.

So how can knowledge actually be a curse? Consider a few of the ways.

Jump to Conclusions

Once we gain a degree of knowledge in a certain area, it’s difficult to resist making assumptions that we now know best what to do. Unconscious bias can cloud our rationale. In times of change (which is all the time), the methods of the past won’t always produce the same results in the future. Just because we’ve experienced success doesn’t mean we can blindly approach new situations in the same old ways.

Lose Inquisitive Spirit

Because the curse of knowledge by definition includes existing insight, it’s impossible for an expert to approach a situation as a newcomer. Where rookies default to research and external thought leadership, veterans default to their own experiences. Maintaining an inquisitive spirit is extremely difficult and can seem like a waste of time if we’re already confident we can score at least a passing grade. At this point, our expertise begins to plateau because we’re operating from memory vs. curiosity.

Fail to Communicate with Followers

If you’ve ever had an expert talk over your head, you know how hard it is to relate. Or maybe you were the expert who found it difficult to get your point across – perhaps to employees or customers. Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath address this specific issue in an HBR article on the curse of knowledge. As an expert, you must constantly translate your message so it can be understood by the non-experts.

Fall Behind the Change Curve

I don’t know about you, but if I need emergency surgery, I want to be operated on by an expert with the latest knowledge, equipment and technology. It doesn’t matter to me if my physician was valedictorian of his medical school three decades ago – I want him to be an expert by today’s standards. If it’s been a long time since you’ve done something for the first time – and you haven’t accessed the latest thinking and methods, you may have fallen behind.

There is no substitute for knowledge and know-how. But for it to be truly be the advantage it is, we’ve got to employ it with an open mind instead of a close one. Continuous learning is more difficult than new learning, but the need has never been higher.

If you’re the expert, push yourself not just to learn new things, but also to study the latest innovations in your areas of expertise. Push yourself to see if a new approach can net better results. And if you’re an organizational leader, look for ways to capture the observations of new leaders while constantly exposing experienced leaders to new situations.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.