By Michael Holland –  

When a leader delegates they can picture very clearly what it is they want done.  So they believe that they are communicating clearly to their employee.  But there’s a villain of natural psychology that limits our capability to communicate clearly and that villain is the curse of knowledge*.

The curse of knowledge came to us from an experiment Stanford University did in the 1990s that revealed people predict that 50% of the time they can communicate clearly when in fact the real outcomes show it is 1 time in 40 – that’s 2.5%!

The experiment consisted of 120 “tappers” who would tap out in rhythm on a table one of 25 well known songs (i.e. Happy Birthday, Star Spangled Banner) to “listener” partners who were unaware of the intended song.

Just before the listener was going to guess the song, the tapper was asked predict the outcome and 50% of the tappers predicted the listener would guess correctly.  Wrong!

The song plays in the head of the tapper so the rhythm being tapped out sounds perfect to them.  All the listener hears are what appears to be random taps on a table more akin to Morse code than a song.

As a leader, when you delegate to an employee, you are the tapper.  You see clearly what you would like accomplished and you predict that the receiver is fully comprehending the full HD video playing in your head.

  • You know the obstacles which exist for the project.
  • You remember doing similar projects in the past.
  • You feel the flow and cadence required to complete the work at hand in a timely manner.

Your employee is the listener and likely knows none of what is playing in your head.

That’s why you need to use active listening skills to assess the communication path.  At times you will need to hum the song you are tapping out by coming along side of your employee to assure that they are heading in the right direction.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • Find a peer and test out the tapper/listener experiment with a couple of songs.  Talk through the outcomes.
  • Think about a recent delegation opportunity with an employee which may not have gone as well as you would’ve liked.  Was the song playing in your head understood by the employee?
  • Do “C” level executives succumb to the curse of knowledge?

*Thanks to Chip and Dan Heath and their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die for the inspiration for this post.