8 things every graduate must know about common sense and success at work

Jan 10, 2018

What role does common sense play in your success at work, and how do you develop it?

Common sense is, of course, vital to your success at work. It is defined as the ability to make sound practical judgements concerning everyday matters. It’s called common sense because it is expected to be common to all people. But it’s not. Stay with me while I explain why.

In my last blog, I explained that the concept of intelligence defined by Dr Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, is one that views intelligence as made up of several components, namely: analytical, creative, wisdom, and practical intelligence.

Another name for practical intelligence is common sense. You need common sense to know how to work out and apply your analytical, creative, wisdom and practical knowledge. It will help you to build a successful graduate career, especially in the early weeks, months and years of starting out. Many graduates fail to understand this but through no fault of their own.

So, here are 8 things you need to know about common sense and how to develop it so you can kick-start your graduate career successfully.

  1. You cannot progress in your career without common sense

When I first started out in advertising I struggled. I just didn’t get it. Because of this, I was unable to progress in the job. However, something drastically changed when I decided to study the notes of every client account I could lay my hands on, whether I was working on the account or not. I also read books about advertising and made friends with the key people in the company. Soon I began to experience what Dr Sternberg describes as ‘knowledge acquisition’ (we shall return to this later) – basically, my knowledge of advertising grew or, most importantly, stuck. Once I started to understand advertising and what was required of me, I was able to progress in my career.

  1. No one will teach you common sense

That’s right, no one. Common sense tends to be acquired, not taught. Dr Sternberg says this type of knowledge “tends to remain unspoken, underemphasized, and poorly conveyed relative to its importance for practical success”. It is often “acquired on one’s own with little support from other people or the support of formal training or direct instruction”. This is important for you to know as a graduate starting in your first proper job. Often, an employer will expect you to know what to do without them going into great detail explaining it to you. They’ll expect that you will already know or have the common sense to work it out yourself. You’ll need to do this if you want to survive and thrive in your job, just as I had to.

  1. Employers can’t AFFORD to teach you common sense

Employers just don’t have the time to do this. They have too much to do to hold your hand through the myriad of scenarios you’ll face at work. That’s why they look for graduates who already have the soft skills to work it out themselves.

  1. Most employers wouldn’t even know HOW to teach you

Even if they could teach common sense, most employers and managers wouldn’t know how to. It is difficult to explain the procedural knowledge that governs why we do what we do. Dr Stenberg suggests that this is because the knowledge that guides what we do is made up of two things: our personal experience and what we have learnt from outside sources (other people, books, videos). When we try to explain a procedure to another person, we also try to explain the part of that knowledge that is tacit – but tacit knowledge isn’t easily articulated.

  1. Common sense is difficult to teach because it’s complex

The system of rules that govern common sense or practical intelligence is complex! Imagine your manager briefs you on the dos and don’ts of how to conduct yourself ahead of a meeting with an important client. When you go into the meeting room and the client acts out of character (he’s in an unusually humorous mood), what do you do? There are far too many rules about how to make judgements on how to behave to cover. And there are as many different situations and conditions that can alter the appropriateness of any advice you’re given. No employer or manager can cover them all. 

  1. You can learn from watching others – but you must still do the work

If I was advising you on how to act in an interview, I might say things like, offer a firm handshake, smile, don’t slouch, maintain eye contact and so forth, but some of what I know may be difficult to pass on to you. My advice about how to answer interview questions can only go so far. We both have no idea what will come up. We can only guess, anticipate and prepare for that. Then there’s the body language, facial expressions and tones of your interviewers. Most of this you will have to master yourself, through practice and experience.

  1. You must develop common sense yourself

So, how do you develop common sense? You can do what I did. Emerge yourself in learning. Read as much as you can around your profession and industry. Shadow and pick the brains of people who know more than you. Lots of what I learnt in my early career I picked up from watching my bosses. You, too, will learn many skills from watching others – but none of this will do you any good without ‘knowledge acquisition’.

Dr Sternberg says that this is because of knowledge acquisition, which is central to developing common sense and competence, triggers certain other thinking processes into action.

This includes the ability to:

  • sort the relevant from irrelevant according to the right context;
  • relate or compare what we already know with what we’re learning; and,
  • combine what we know to come up with new meanings, ideas, etc.

This is how you develop common sense. The graduate who doesn’t trigger these processes will retain nothing and then wonder why they aren’t progressing.

  1. Common sense isn’t so common to everyone

I don’t mean this in the usual offensive way people often make this statement. I mean that not everyone’s common sense is the same. Common sense is quite personal.

As you begin to acquire practical experience in the workplace you will develop a preference for some ideas over others. For example, through experience you may find that one approach is more effective for you than one a colleague or manager may prefer. When that happens, you are more likely to choose an approach learnt through your own experience over someone else’s – even though both may work just as well as each other. Employers don’t shun this type selective behaviour. After all, if it’s going to make you more effective, efficient or successful at the job, why does it matter?

Those are the 8 things you need to know about common sense and how to develop it so you can kick-start your career successfully!

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