Can Common Sense be Learned?

Can common sense be learned? Can you teach it to someone? Can you learn it from a course, book, coach, blog post, or some other method?

First of all, it might help to agree on what is meant by the term “common sense”. Mirriam-Webster defines it as:

Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.

Most of us can know it when we see it. Probably more so, most of us have no problem at all pointing it out when it’s missing. We usually do this by saying something like, “Harold, what the hell were you thinking?!”

Sure, we’ve all had a few of those moments. I know I sure have. I’m talking about the repeat offenders that for whatever reason, consistently seems to make errors in judgment that most reasonable people wouldn’t make.

We can excuse teenagers. I saw on Frontline that their brains that haven’t fully developed yet, so their judgment is naturally impaired. Even if that’s not true, as a parent, holding onto that belief helped me survive the teen years.

Elderly folks get a pass too. Cognitive ability starts to slow down, and unfortunately, a lot of creeps take advantage of this and make a living trying to con the elderly.

Sometimes “a lack of common sense”, or “errors in judgment” is used as an excuse for really bad behavior (Tiger, Ben, Eric, John). Sorry guys, but I don’t buy it. That kind of crappy behavior means a lack of a moral compass, not a lack of common sense.

I’m sure intelligence has some sort of relation to common sense, as well as experience. Sure, if you’re dumb as dirt, you could be expected to make dumb decisions. Although some very smart people seem to lack common sense.

If you’re brand new at something, you’re going to have to make a lot of mistakes before you can learn what not to repeat. Experience matters – just ask the passengers of flight 1549.

So, in the workplace, what we’re left with is the reasonably intelligent, experienced, well-meaning, 30-65 year old manager or co-worker that consistently makes the wrong call or says the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

As a leader, coach, trainer, teacher, parent, friend, or co-worker, is there ANYTHING we can do for this person?

I think the first step is to recognize there’s a problem. With consistent and caring feedback – and after getting burned repeatedly – someone might have enough self-awareness to step forward and declare “I’m lacking common sense, and I need help!”.

Without taking that first step, I’m afraid there’s no hope. Your manager, client, or co-worker is destined for a career full of boneheaded moves.

However – IF someone is willing to step up and seek help –  can we help them? Can you learn, or teach someone common sense?

I poured through my leadership development reference books and did a Google search, and along with a dose of my own “common sense”, here’s what I came up with for a development plan. I have no evidence that it will work, but I sure learned a lot and had fun researching it.

8 Steps to (maybe) Improve Your Common Sense:

1. Admit you have a problem.
Probably the hardest step of all.

2. Slow down.
Many errors in judgment are a result of impulsive, hasty decisions. If you know you’ve got a problem with common sense, you’ll need to sacrifice decision speed for decision quality. When in doubt, sleep on it. At least one night, maybe two. OK, maybe a week.

3. Bite your tongue.
If there is any doubt that what you’re thinking of saying might be taken the wrong way or get you in trouble, then don’t say it. Yes, you’ll be less talkative, less funny, and find yourself bleeding at the mouth a lot, but that’s a lot better than having your foot in your mouth all the time. At least I think it might be – actually, both sound pretty uncomfortable.

4. Get feedback from others.
Before you send that email, have that conversation, spend that money, or whatever other train you’re about to wreck, seek out the advice of others. Test the decision with your manager, peers, direct reports, or anyone else that can give you honest, constructive feedback. Then, make sure you listen to that feedback.

5. Take a personality assessment.
Take the MBTI, DISC, Hogan, or some other credible personality assessment in order to identify your natural tendencies and biases, and how those tendencies may be influencing your analysis, judgment and decision making. It’s even better, maybe even required, to have a professional help you interpret the data.

6. Get a coach.
In this case, I’d even go as far to say get a coach with a clinical background. Someone that can help you examine your thinking process, a sounding board to test pending decisions, and someone to slap you in the side of the head.

7. Find a role model.
Find someone you admire that always seems to make the right decisions and ask how he/she does it. Walk through a number of examples of decisions they’ve made, and ask them to explain their thought process.

8. Read a few books on judgment, decision making, problem solving, and/or critical thinking.

Will all of any of these work? I honestly don’t know, however, I don’t buy into the notion that anyone is “hardwired”. People can change if they want to and are willing to work at it.

I really want to hear from my colleagues in the people development biz. What do you think? Can common sense be learned or taught?