The Curse of Tacit Knowledge

We all have common sense. But common sense often goes astray. According to the Oxford Reference Online, common sense is often called tacit knowledge:

tacit knowledge   1.  The informal understandings of individuals (especially their social knowledge) which they have not verbalized and of which they may not even be aware, but which they may be inferred to know (notably from their behaviour). This includes what they need to know or assume in order to produce and make sense of messages (social and textual knowledge). Tacit knowledge is distinguished from explicit or formal knowledge and the term is sometimes used synonymously with common sense, in the sense of taken-for-granted knowledge.[1]

Tacit knowledge is a good thing. It helps us operate effectively in the world, and reduces the effort it takes to learn new things.

However, tacit knowledge has a dark side, when the informal understandings that we hold are incorrect. It’s hard to change these mis-perceptions, mainly because we’re often not aware that we even hold these beliefs.

So how do we become better managers and leaders when tacit knowledge may be holding us back?  Joel Raelin suggests three steps[2]:

  1. Become a part of the problem by reframing the situation.  Learn to think of yourself as part of the group tackling the problem, not some distant leader there to help others fix themselves.
  2. Reflect on your own assumptions and beliefs.  Consider the explicitly how you are thinking about other people or about the issues. Are any of your “common sense” assumptions leading you to inaccurate judgments?
  3. Practice double-loop learning.  Go back to your fundamental assumptions about the people, practices and situation. Question the values and systems.

In other words, reflecting about how you think and behave helps you learn to be a better leader. As leaders, we need to make more time for reflection.

[1] Source: “tacit knowledge”  A Dictionary of Media and Communication. First Edition by Daniel Chandler and Rod Munday. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  University of Western Ontario.  27 May 2011  <;

[2] Raelin, Joe. “Does Action Learning Promote Collaborative Leadership? Academy of Management Learning & Education. 2006. Vol. 5. No. 2, 152-168


5 replies »

  1. So true. Or we need to be told that our common sense makes sense. That’s why consultants make so much money.

  2. I’m interpreting Raelin’s 3 suggestions as simply this: Learn to step back from a problem and view it as an unbiased observer … obviously easier said than done. It reminds me of the proverb of not being able to see the forest through the trees.

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