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Can you teach common sense to your employees?

Some years ago one of my administrators booked a meeting for me in Redditch at 11.30am scheduled to last 1.5 hours and another meeting at 2pm the same day in Cambridge. When I pointed out that there was a distance on over 100 miles, mostly cross-country and even the optimistic AA Route planner gave a travel time of two hours ten minutes, she just shrugged a shoulder and said “I don’t travel, my job’s office-based”. It was in vain that I suggested that if she didn’t know something herself she should refer to resources like AA Route planner. As we don’t yet run to a company magic flying carpet I had to ask her to re-book the second meeting so I stood a chance of actually getting to it. Even when I showed her the facts the penny didn’t drop. She simply had no common sense. Sadly, despite its name common sense is not so common.

The Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of common sense as ‘good sense and sound judgement in practical matters’.

Intelligence and common sense are two entirely different things. People who are intelligent do not necessarily have common sense because they use different parts of the mind. Intelligence tests measure the algorithmic mind whilst common sense uses the reflective mind. Your reflective mind allows you to view the bigger picture, approaching a situation realistically. You can then set realistic goals to take sensible actions in order to achieve them.

Common sense can be taught to some extent but it is largely built around our past experiences and here’s the key thing – turning those experiences to good account. The region of the brain that controls emotions reacts faster than the region that controls decision-making so many people go with their preferred emotional choice, not the choice made on knowledge and past experience. The difference is just milliseconds, but it could be enough for an irrational response to something. Bit of a design flaw perhaps, but there we are. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Reflecting on experiences allows us to understand the world around us and how it works. Taking time to reflect means that when a similar situation occurs our common sense will tell us how we should react. For instance our common sense tells us that if it is raining we should take an umbrella or waterproof jacket out with us. This is because our reflective mind takes into account a previous time when it rained and tells us we need to do something to prevent ourselves from getting wet. Our common sense allows us to make decisions like this quickly.

Trying to make decisions based upon our own idea of reality rather than the actual reality around us is when our common sense will fail us. More knowledge can help develop greater common sense. For example, if you know that nettle looks like and you know the unpleasant effects of topical contact with the plant, it becomes a basic common sense decision not to touch it. A person without this knowledge can't make a common sense judgement.

If you’re encouraging your employees to develop common sense thinking, here are some questions to ask them to go through before reaching a conclusion.

  • Does it make sense?
  • Are there any contra-indicators telling me this is not the way to go?
  • Is it the right thing to do? What tells me that?
  • What are the options?
  • Would I want to be treated that way?
  • What does your previous knowledge or experience suggest you do?
  • Is that what you've been taught?
  • Is this decision made using good judgement?

Common sense is about being open–minded and curious, asking why and how things happen, so learn from your experiences – good as well as bad. Ask employees to reflect on their activities and analyse what has worked well and what needs improving.

The more your employees put a break on emotional thinking and add reflection and knowledge to the process, the more effective they’ll become.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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