The curse of knowledge

Understand what the curse of knowledge is and how to overcome it.

The curse of knowledge is one of my favorite topics we all act on without actually thinking about it. In a nutshell, “the curse of knowledge” is a cognitive bias where individuals find it difficult to imagine what it's like not to know something they know well. This could be something technical (in the realm of engineering) or institutional (from history within an organization or role). For engineering leaders, this can be a significant hurdle, but it’s not just limited to a management issue; it’s especially an issue with more senior engineers on your team. Let’s run through how to overcome the curse of knowledge.

Acknowledge the bias. The first step to overcoming the curse of knowledge is recognizing that it exists. This requires taking an intentional step back. Accept that your extensive experience (yay!) can sometimes cloud your judgment about what others know. Knowledge is power! …Until it isn’t.

Simplify your communication. When explaining complex concepts, break them down into simpler components. Avoid jargon or technical terms that might not be familiar to everyone. Spell out acronyms or introduce them as a concept. Use analogies and metaphors that relate to everyday experiences to make abstract ideas more accessible. Avoid saying “you just need to X” or “It’s simple/easy”.

For example, instead of saying, "We'll use a microservices architecture to ensure scalability and resilience," you might say, "Think of our application as a collection of small, independent services that work together, like a team of specialists rather than a single jack-of-all-trades." Know your audience! Junior engineers and cross-functional peers don’t want your jargon.

Ask for feedback and ensure what you’re sharing makes sense. I often check after explaining something and just say, “Did that make sense?” As an engineering leader, encourage your team to ask questions and provide feedback on your explanations and set that example. If you don’t understand something, speak up. Create a culture where it’s okay to say “I actually didn’t understand that.”

Foster a culture where team members share knowledge with each other. Peer learning can be less intimidating than top-down instruction and can help bridge knowledge gaps. Encourage your more experienced engineers to mentor those who are newer or less experienced.

Use visuals. Some people learn better visually! Leverage diagrams, flowcharts, and slides to make complex information more digestible. They provide a reference point that your team can revisit and help bridge the gap between your knowledge and theirs. They’re also fantastic for future training when new employees join the company!

Be patient. This is probably the most important reminder. Patience is key. Understand that learning takes time, and everyone has their own pace. Be patient when explaining concepts and be willing to revisit topics as needed.

Overcoming the curse of knowledge requires an intentional effort and a willingness to adapt your communication style. Remember that not everyone on your team learns the same or retains information the same. This requires ongoing practice, especially as your team evolves. As you refine these skills, you’ll not only become a better leader but also create a safe, open culture of learning and knowledge sharing.

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