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27 November 2019

The Key to Efficient Knowledge Sharing? It’s Empathy.

Working efficiently in a knowledge industry like ours requires high-intensity expertise. But simply knowing how to do something most others don’t is not enough. Sharing that knowledge is vital to maintain a high level of competence. It’s how individuals and companies survive against the test of time.

We share knowledge every time we interact with other people. In professional situations this manifests, for example, as daily catch-up meetings, doing code review, sharing feedback on a design, showing a new colleague around the office or onboarding a fresh team member.

While sharing knowledge should be a well-meaning act of mutual joy, it can backfire and end up damaging relationships and even culture. To understand the risks, we’ll dive into psychology and emerge enlightened, with concrete tools at our disposal for empowering the communities we work in.

Empathy is not a default, it has to be chosen. Here are some ways to help you embrace empathy in your every-day communication.

Fear and Shame, brought to you by the Lizard Brain

Our minds are poorly wired for today’s hypersocial and interconnected world. The basic instincts that enabled survival in the wilderness and in small communities generations ago keep us on the edge in the constant stream of strangers, cars and advertisements. One such key prehistoric-survival-skill-turned-curse is fear, and the best-known modern manifestations of fear are stress and anxiety.

We may feel afraid when doing something uncertain, like asking a question, in an insecure environment. The act makes us vulnerable.

Should the fear be justified, for example if being responded with a chuckle or a well-meaning but definitely cringing smile, or being berated for our lack of knowledge, we feel that our vulnerability has been exploited. This causes a crushing feeling of shame, and shame begets more fear. The vicious cycle is complete. 

According to psychologist Brené Brown, feelings of shame and fear trigger the same critical areas of our brain. They prevent full utilization of the prefrontal cortex responsible for our personality, complex cognitive behavior and decision making.

We experience shame as trauma. Neurologically this trauma is no different from a tragic accident, war experience or loss of a loved one. The effect is so strong that many of our most memorable and defining moments are grounded in shame. What’s more, shame is highly infectious. It encourages behavior that forces others to take refuge behind fearful defenses to avoid vulnerability and shame. In this way, shame can single-handedly paralyze a whole culture.

“You’re not enough,” the Lizard says

When we’re ashamed, we may dwell on self-obsessed thoughts like “you’re not good enough” or “who do you think you are”. The reaction to avoid further shame leads us to armor up and begin policing our own behavior.

We may begin to avoid certain subjects or people. We fall back on perfectionism and spend an unnecessary amount of energy to make sure nothing ever goes wrong; or we may numb the joy of success by thinking that “it isn’t that important anyway”. We could even reflect our shame on other people or barrage them with our worries to no end. All so that we wouldn’t be vulnerable and have to risk feeling ashamed.

Creating a Culture of Vulnerability

Where appearances are important, shame reigns supreme. If the community culture doesn’t include natural trust, transparency and playfulness, knowledge sharing won’t happen, and progress will be stifled. Without trust, people won’t ask questions. Without transparency, people won’t build trust or know what to ask. Without a positive attitude to play, a culture of learning and experimentation can’t persist.

An open culture that supports communicating expectations clearly, reacting positively to failure, asking stupid questions, relying on others and connecting socially is essential for effortless knowledge sharing.

Cultures cannot be forced to change or stay healthy. The change and maintenance must come from within, and first from those in power. Typically this means the bosses, managers, senior employees and anyone who people look up to or might be afraid of. They have to lead by example to make the good practices stick.

Words Are Hard

So how do we make sure people feel safe and at ease with sharing their experiences and expertise? Let’s examine a typical case of how an exchange might go wrong:

  1. Someone asks you for help, and you do your best to assist.
  2. They don’t take it well, keep doing the thing wrong or don’t seem to care.
  3. You start feeling like they’re incompetent or that your help is not welcome.
  4. Either they, you, or both learn to avoid further exchanges.

Several things in this abstract example can lead to undesired avoidance. It’s not clear if the person asking for help wanted actual assistance or just a sympathetic ear. We all need to vent our emotions every now and then. If that’s the case, concrete solutions to that person’s plight are likely to go unheard. If you’re unsure, it’s good to ask whether they want help or just someone to talk to. If you’re the one asking for help or a friendly shoulder, it’s also good to let the other person know in advance.

In addition, undeveloped practices of giving and receiving knowledge may degrade relationships and culture. For example, if the conversation is too direct and loaded with negativity, someone might leave the situation in a bad mood despite learning a thing or two. Often the advisor has a greater responsibility to make sure the communication goes smooth. 

The Sum of Our Parts

A 2019 study on the culture of openness, transparency and accountability in English hospitals revealed that when doctors and nurses can disclose and discuss errors, hospital mortality rates decline (Toffollutti, Stuckler; 2019).

Open and empathetic communication can save not only careers, companies and communities, but actual human lives that would otherwise be lost.

So go out there, express your needs without judgment, be open to the needs of others and share what you know. That’s how we thrive. It’s how we survive.

Further reading:

  • Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute
  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
  • The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown


Illustration: Aija Malmioja

Written by

Ville Pelkonen

Ville is our senior software engineer, a React Native prodigy and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. On his free time, he cooks naked, participates in and arranges all sorts of role-playing events, takes care of his friends’ cats and is also one of the five people who still play Pokemon Go.