Making Common Sense More Commonplace: Doing Business the Right Way
Making Common Sense More Commonplace: Doing Business the Right Way

There are many times that you hear about a business and wonder, “what were they thinking?” Serving as in-house counsel not only requires specialized legal knowledge and technique, but it exposes you to the company’s various departments and the decisions that are made in the ordinary course of business.

In my experience, it’s rare that someone with decision making authority made it to that level by being an idiot. So for argument’s sake, we can assume that deep down we all know what the right thing to do is, but for some reason, we don’t always do the right things.

Why is it then that we don’t always listen to that little voice inside our heads? The voice that clearly knows right from wrong. The voice that knows how to analyze things from multiple points of view. The voice, that for some reason we’ve all either lowered the volume on or even muted because we get caught up in greed or selfishness, or we just don’t think we have the time to listen to because we are so busy and need to get things done. That voice has a name and that name is COMMON SENSE. As an industry, I think it’s about time we started listening to it and using it.

In law school, they taught us about the “Reasonable Man.” The Reasonable Man represents an objective standard against which any individual's conduct can be measured. It is used to determine if a breach of the standard of care has occurred. The Reasonable Man standard holds that each person owes a duty to behave as a reasonable person would under the same or similar circumstances.

While each case will have specific circumstances that require varying types of conduct and degrees of care, the Reasonable Man standard does not change. The Reasonable Man standard performs a crucial role in determining whether a defendant has acted negligently in tort law, and I argue that with slight variation, the standard of care required of the Reasonable Man is largely based on the Reasonable Man using common sense.

Roughly speaking, common sense is what people would agree upon and what they “sense” as their shared (common) natural understandings. I’m not arguing that that you should base your decision making solely on public opinion, but it certainly is important.

The reason people say “perception is reality” is because the way people perceive us or our situation is what we need to react to. A simple test that we can use to gauge public opinion is “The New York Times Test,” which asks us how we would feel if our business decision and reasoning was printed in boldface type on the front page of The New York Times for all to see. If your analysis is honest and objective, and your business decision passes the test, then although it ultimately might not be the right or best decision to make, you should at least feel comfortable with the decision.

Objectivity is a key concept that is essential for applying true common sense to any situation. It could be argued that common sense speaks too late and comes from someone that has no skin in the game. From a practical perspective, this is true. None of us has a crystal ball or a time machine. And, of course hindsight is 20/20.

However, most of the time, the realization comes too late because we failed to ask for advice, or we failed to think things all the way through on our own before we acted.

One could argue that public opinion is formed by outsiders, those with no skin in the game, and therefore lack of personal risk allows them to think more objectively. So, if you do have risk, but you can step back and be objective, then your analysis will be more clear and lead to better decision making.

Inherent in the concept of common sense is the notion of commonality, which tells us that we should not assume that our version or image of common sense is communal. Instead, we need to view things from different perspectives. This seems to fly in the face of the Golden Rule ("do as you would be done by”). But, in reality, the Golden Rule fails to take into consideration that no two people are exactly alike.

Just because one person is fine being treated a certain way, doesn’t mean he or she should assume that everyone else feels the same way. Different people can view the same set of facts/situation/disputes differently. This is called perspective, and it’s one of the most, if not the most, important concepts to grasp.

Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People quotes Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own.”

If you can view things from somebody else’s perspective, you will be much more productive and get further than by being stubborn and closed-minded. Understanding another person’s perspective folds right into the communal nature behind common sense.

Why is perspective so important? Because believe it or not, excluding liars and people doing things out of spite, your opponent believes in her or his position as much as you believe in yours. That’s right: the opposition honestly believes that it is right, and you are wrong.

This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with someone else’s perspective, but you have to at least recognize it and then find a way to play to it or to counteract it. To know and understand your opponent’s point of view, you have to gather facts. When analyzing those facts, relativism reminds us that we must remember that every situation is relative to the specific facts of that situation.

The concept of relativism believes that there are no absolute truths because the truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as situation facts, language or culture. Albert Einstein probably defined it best when he said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

I urge you to sprinkle some common sense on your decision making. Try to view things from other perspectives. Soak up all of the ideas that are being pushed on you on a daily basis, because even if you don’t agree with what others are saying, it will at least help you see things from a different perspective. Once you can view things from other perspectives, you will be able to apply a more useful version of common sense to your decision making. This will ultimately lead to better decision making and a better public perception of you and your company.