Nuala Walsh is CEO at MindEquity, and a Behavioral Scientist with Advisory Board roles in business, sport, and non-profit organizations.
You’ve arrived! You’re a subject matter expert, a sought-out oracle. After years of sacrifice, study and sycophants, your position of corporate power and prestige is assured. Or is it?
Not necessarily! Your knowledge may have become your curse. It’s not that you know too much; it’s that you assume others know much of what you know. Highly intelligent experts often under-explain and over-complicate, leaving non-experts in clouds of confusion. It’s what psychologists call the “curse of expertise,” or sometimes the “curse of knowledge.”
Many a rocket scientist presenter has boomed or bombed based on their ability to simplify complex topics. But the ability to effectively transfer knowledge is expected, whether from a chief medical officer explaining vaccines, a lawyer advising distressed clients or a leader inspiring hope. And it’s also expected of you.
Unintended clumsiness can cripple your credibility and organizational progress. What’s more, this communication curse is amplified by today’s fast-paced, information-saturated operating environment.
It’s Not Me; It’s You
Stanford professor, Pamela Hinds, asked salespeople to predict how long novices would take to use a new mobile phone. They estimated 13 minutes. It took 30 minutes. Like charades, it’s a game of mental telepathy.
The curse is easy to spot in others. It’s the accountant’s complex scenario, the technologist’s convoluted shorthand, the marketeer’s vacuous abstractions or the writer’s redundant rhyming riddles. It may also be you!
The curse is hard to self-diagnose. What’s more, in my experience, I find the Illuminati can often be entrenched in their views, less open to alternatives and perspective-taking. This isn’t the novice’s comprehension problem; it’s the expert’s communication problem and a severe organizational threat. Valid business cases can get rejected, innovative ideas discarded, value-accretive projects shelved and red-flag warnings missed. Customers and shareholders lose.
Behavioral Reasons For This Curse
To counteract this cleverness curse, it’s important to first understand its psychological and situational drivers:
Context: In today’s multi-speed world, businesses are under pressure to deliver on time and in time. Pithy phrases dominate social media. Gurus can leave others too time-starved to question ambiguous guidance or direction.
Ego: Experts crave looking smart, while confused employees fear looking stupid. Employees nod along as experts rambles on, both bathed in blissful ignorance.
Authority Bias: Many people conform to the perceived authority of experts, especially in uncertainty. This happens even when it conflicts with informed logic or personal values.
Overconfidence: Many plaudit-saturated experts believe they’re above-average communicators. In Elizabeth Newton’s study, subjects tapped out their favorite well-known tune, estimating 50% of listeners would correctly identify it. Only 2.5% did.
Dunning-Kruger Effect: We don’t know what we don’t know, a Donald Rumsfeld “unknown unknown.” The illusion of competence hides layers of unconscious incompetence, like the overpromoted CEO.
Anchoring: Experts typically anchor to their current knowledge base and fail to adjust enough to recreate their early learning mindset.
Memory: The aha moment of learning a craft is long forgotten. It’s hard to unlearn. That’s why some professors prefer teaching executives to undergraduates.
Availability Bias: Specialist knowledge is top-of-mind and easier to retrieve, so it tends to be verbalized quickly.
Illusion of Simplicity: Many misconceive that their explanation will be simple enough for the less-informed.
False Consensus Effect: When we think everyone agrees with us, course correction is unlikely. Experience shows that if challenged, some experts double down rather than dumb down.
How It Affects You And Your Organization
As a behavioral scientist and board advisor, I’ve observed how this curse impacts both the expert and the organization in several material and moral ways.
• Conformity Risk: Information asymmetry and power imbalance are normal in any hierarchy. When employees obey a senior’s dubious instruction, groupthink, herding and bandwagon behavior are standard side-effects.
• False Expectations: Even seasoned leaders can overestimate smart employees’ knowledge and develop unrealistic performance expectations. The risk of unfair appraisals and overlooked talent can result.
• Stifled Innovation: When information gets log-jammed and not transferred, team creativity can suffer. Businesses that prioritize specialists over generalists, like banking or R&D, miss nuanced problem-solving moments.
• Missed Opportunity: Many interviewees wrongly assume the hiring manager knows their CV. They undersell their capabilities. Salespeople fall into a similar trap. Neither gets the pitch or the promotion. Neither understand why.
• Personal Consequences: When an expert performs effortlessly but teaches poorly, intellectual resentment and frustration rise. The less-informed individual often perceives less warmth and less competence. Over time, the expert becomes more disliked and subject to collective criticism. Reputation and financial threats rise.
10 Ways To Counter The Cleverness Curse
Behavioral science can help boost the organization’s IQ and the expert’s EQ in several simple steps:
1. Simplify communications. Ingroup acronyms, clichés, caveats and jargon are exclusionary. Pilots refer to “feet wet” for flying above water or “Zulu time” for GMT. Avoid abstractions and use concrete language.
2. Tell stories. Connect your ideas. Go back to the basics, even if it feels irritating or regressive. Chunk your information into digestible bites.
3. Remember “because.” Explain more. We’re explanation-seeking creatures who want reasons to believe.
4. Restate rather than rationalize. Focus on repetition; don’t over-defend your argument.
5. Give the gift of time. Allow time to absorb your content. Invite questions and replays to check comprehension.
6. Solicit negative feedback. Insist on more criticism than compliments. Conduct peer reviews, and don’t reject negative news.
7. Diversify your challenge network. Deliberately include novices, and let their voices be the devil’s advocate.
8. Normalize pushback. Accept this curse. Openly recognize and reward its prevention.
9. Solicit external advice. Restate issues from multiple perspectives. Know your audience’s cognitive limits and overexplain rather than underexplain.
10. Experiment. For high-stakes matters, test your message efficacy on strangers.
As organizations face sustained uncertainty and seek strategic direction, your opportunity as an information oracle and knowledge multiplier will be magnified. The tough part wasn’t earning your expertise; it’s learning how to translate and transfer it.
Be an insight super spreader. Strategically dumbing down isn’t dumb. It’ll save you and your organization time, money and effort. And, it will kill your cleverness curse, not your career!
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