If Common Sense isn’t so “Common”, What Can We Do About It?

We’ve all heard the rhetoric: common sense just isn’t as common as it used to be. Could this actually be true? And if so, what effect is it having in our workplace? Should we be concerned? Can we learn common sense?

Research tells us that common sense is based on intuition and lessons learned from our experiences, or lessons we learn from others. A very basic example is that common sense says we shouldn’t put our hands on a hot stove. We don’t need to ask too many questions or think too critically about this issue because we intuitively understand the pain that would result from this choice. As the name implies, common sense is based on a shared set of experiences with universal application. If you look at stops signs all over the world, they are all pretty much red octagons, despite the language written in the middle. This is a universal application of the common understanding that RED = STOP.

When it comes to common sense in today’s world, we cannot officially claim it has disappeared or even decreased, but rather that it has changed. As our society puts a greater focus on individualism and, as technology becomes a more integral part of many lives, the opportunity for “common understanding” has diverged.

Take, for instance, a millennial with a smartphone. Most millennials intuitively understand how to access features or change settings on a phone in a way that we can categorize as common sense, and yet this sense is not so common for many members of older generations. Likewise, the older generation has shared experiences and intuitions that the younger ones do not. There is a possibility that a certain level of common sense based on shared experiences and shared understandings has in fact decreased, particularly in workplaces. For organizations that have multiple generations working together, each generation could “rightly” complain that the other generations don’t have any common sense – compared to their own – and in some sense, they would be right.

So, to answer the question about whether common sense can be learned – the answer is, of course. Each time we learn from our experiences, we are gaining common sense.

In the workplace, this usually means learning how to do things better and more efficiently until that work task or workflow becomes “common”. But here is the kicker – how do we learn to do things better?

More often than not learning requires us to ask questions. To learn, we need to ask someone who has more knowledge or more experience on that particular task. This could be a formal training program or ad hoc water cooler chat about how they did something similar. And guess what? Asking questions creates a common understanding. And yep, you guessed it, that will increase the level of common sense in the workplace.

While the jury is still out on whether common sense isn’t common anymore, at the very least we can say that the content and context of common sense changed. And we can actively seek out opportunities to increase the level of common sense. (More about how to do that using critical thinking skills coming in our next article.)