We all know that feeling: people are talking about something as if they expect you know what it is, or understand it, and you’re going to look really stupid if you admit ignorance. It’s a common phenomenon in all sorts of fields, not least when technical matters are concerned, as discussed in this article.
Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.
When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.
Farnam Street points out that this can cause problems in organisations:
In group settings, this has lead to what psychologists call ‘pluralistic ignorance,’a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. This causes huge problems in organizations.
Consider an example. You’re in a large meeting with the senior management of your organization to discuss an initiative that spans across the organization and involves everyone in the room. You hear words come out, someone may even ask you, do you follow? And yes, of course you follow — you don’t want to be the only person in the room without a clue.
… So you walk out of the room wondering what you just agreed to do. You have no idea. Your stress goes up, you run around asking others, and quickly discover they are just as confused as you are.
It sounds bad, sure, but it’s even worse if you’re there in order to provide challenge. Challenge is difficult, but it’s really important: in fact it’s the primary purpose of many committees, up to and including the Board level.