I am a management assistant and my manager keeps telling me I need to do this and I need to do that; I do exactly as he says, but then it's still not what he wants. And he says I have to use common sense.

Ultimately it appears we are both frustrated or maybe there is some communication problem. I want to get better at work, but I guess a first step would be trying to understand what exactly I am doing wrong...

How can I understand what I am doing wrong, especially when my boss tells me to use common sense? (which, apparently, I don't have)

Also other "mentors" in the company have told me to use common sense and often, when I reply, they put their palm on their forehead...

Well, somehow that doesn't help me.

Well, if common sense is what I don't have, how can I develop it?

  • 7
    It would help to have a few examples of the incidents that you are talking about.
    – Jim Clay
    Jun 19, 2014 at 21:37
  • Well, I would need to describe my job in detail... but in essence I think I am not doing my job very well and what they say is I have no common sense. Mainly this involves how I speak to other staff, how much information I should reveal or not reveal, etc.
    – MightyCook
    Jun 19, 2014 at 21:40
  • I believe you should do what YOU think is best, and then defend your actions. If you follow your boss advices but they are crappy ones, then that's probably why he gets frustrated and why you do a bad job. Think for yourself, even though you may think you boss just wants a follower.
    – Olivier
    Jun 20, 2014 at 17:47
  • Is there a language or cultural barrier between you and the manager?
    – Andrey
    Oct 9, 2014 at 14:02

6 Answers 6


The trouble with "common sense" is that people have wildly different interpretations of what "common sense" is. For example, "common sense" to my friend's wife newly arrived from Taiwan is that cars stop at the red light - Yes, they actually do that in law abiding Taiwan. "Common sense" in New York City means that you look both ways when you cross, even if you have the light. Especially if you have the light.

Your manager's idea of "common sense" is obvious to him from his point of reference, which is himself. Your idea of "common sense" is obvious to you from your point of reference, which is yourself. The trouble starts when you both have to operate in the same plane of reality and your conceptions of "common sense" collide.

I suggest that you ask your manager what he is thinking, and make it clear to him that what's obvious to him is not obvious to you. I protect myself by telling everyone - everyone, not just management and co-workers but friends, families, acquaintances, total strangers - that I have no "common sense", that I cannot read their minds and that if they want something from me, they have to say it explicitly and not make me guess what they want. Because when I start guessing, anything - and I mean anything, can happen. Some have thought of me as an idiot for asking. I would have thought of myself a much bigger idiot for NOT asking. In this context, the only thinking and the only opinion that matter is mine not theirs. Aside from that, I'd rather look like an idiot than be one.

You can guess at somebody's idea of what "common sense" is only if you live their life and you see things the way they do. My advice is, don't even try - you have your hands full with living your own. Instead, just ask and push your asking until you get the specific, relevant and actionable answers you need. One more time: you are not a mind reader.

To be cynical, I have dealt with too many individuals over the years, whose idea of "common sense" exactly matches my idea of "idiocy". Protect yourself. Ask.

  • It's ironic that so-called "common" sense is not, in fact, common to both parties. Jun 20, 2014 at 1:19
  • @starplusplus My attitude is that the phrase "common sense" is as over-used as it is meaningless :) Give me any day of the week someone who has "good sense" :) Jun 20, 2014 at 1:47
  • 3
    Albert Einstein: "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen".
    – gnasher729
    Jun 20, 2014 at 20:14
  • 1
    @gnasher729 ... and no two collections are identical :) Jun 20, 2014 at 20:22

I am a management assistant and my manager keeps telling me I need to do this and I need to do that; I do exactly as he says, but then it's still not what he wants. And he says I have to use common sense.

When you say "you do exactly as he says", is that to denote that you blindly follow orders and follow things to the letter? As an example, if someone told me to take care of their cat for a couple of weeks, would you think this meant:

  1. Observe the cat and if it looks ill, bring the cat to a vet to have it examined.

  2. Feed the cat with the proper cat food, make sure it has access to water, clean the litter box every 2-3 days, brush the cat's fur, clip the cat's nails and on top of that if the cat looks ill, take the cat to the vet.

The first could be one's interpretation that presumes to do only what is told while the other is likely what is meant by "take care" that has to be understood to mean more than a few other things that if you've never had a cat then you may not know about the litter box and other steps in how to ensure the cat stays healthy for those weeks.

How can I understand what I am doing wrong, especially when my boss tells me to use common sense? (which, apparently, I don't have)

My suggestion would be to consider if this is in specific areas or all parts of your work along with probably having a private meeting with your boss to say, "I would like some help to know what I'm missing here. Could I come to you with questions that while they may seem basic, I want you to correct me if I'm going down the wrong path please?" or something similar so that it is clear you want to remedy this and it is clear that you want to ask questions to get clarity about things.

Well, if common sense is what I don't have, how can I develop it?

Based on the comment, I would have a few suggestions:

"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie would note these suggestions as a starting point:

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  1. Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Six Ways to Make People Like You

1.Become genuinely interested in other people. 2. Smile. 3. Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language. 4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. 5. Talk in terms of the other person's interest. 6. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
  3. If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge.

Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise every improvement.
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

In addition, you may want to consider reading books on "Emotional Intelligence" that may provide clues on how to understand people as it may be that you have different expectations from others that has to be resolved here.

  • Someone's been reading Dale Carnegie :)
    – Gigi
    Jun 19, 2014 at 22:12

To lack common sense is to not see the potential consequences of what you are doing when others would commonly see those consequences. So, for example, if you are asked to water the plants and you pour so much water on them that it overflows the saucers beneath, you would be said to lack common sense. You followed the direction you were given, but you didn't pay attention to the effects of what you were doing. Perhaps you have never watered a plant before, and what is common knowledge to others was missed by you.

In the context of your job, when you are asked to do something, you need to understand what it is you are being asked to do before you do it. If it is at all new to you, ask clarifying questions before you start. Then at every step in the process watch for possible unintended consequences. Ask yourself who or what might be affected by this thing you are about to do. You can develop common sense by practicing prediction and by being observant of things that other people notice.


I suspect that when your boss and mentors tell you to use "common sense", what they really mean is that you should consider the context of your actions, and adjust accordingly. If you make sure you understand the purpose of the assignments you're given, then you are more likely to do the right thing, even if the instructions you're given are vague or even wrong.

For example: The boss asks you to "get the TPS report to Joe Bloe in accounting". Do you email it, put a copy on his desk, or hand it to him in person? The answer depends on a lot of factors. Why does Joe need the TPS report? Suppose he has to be prepared to explain it to the board of directors at the next meeting. If that board meeting is tomorrow in another city, and Joe is about to leave for the airport to travel to that meeting, then he probably won't have email access while he's on the plane, and he might not have a network connection in the hotel. So sending him an email is risky; you'd better give him a hard copy so he can read it on the plane. This is urgent; chase Joe down the hall if you have to. On the other hand, maybe the board meeting is not until next week. If so, then email is probably fine. But since this is an important meeting, it would be a good idea to contact Joe the day before the meeting just to make sure he saw the email and was able to open the attachment. And next time a board meeting is scheduled, you don't have to wait to be told what to do -- ask your boss if the TPS report is ready to send to Joe.

If you make an effort to understand your boss's job, then you'll understand the context for the assignments he gives you. You might say to him "I'm trying to improve my 'common sense' by understanding how my tasks fit into the big picture. Could we have a chat at some point so I can ask some questions?" Then be prepared with a list of questions such as "What are these TPS reports used for?" Once you understand what the boss is trying to accomplish, you can probably make suggestions for improving the process.


I am a management assistant and my manager keeps telling me I need to do this and I need to do that; I do exactly as he says, but then it's still not what he wants. And he says I have to use common sense.

Having common sense means that you don't try to guess what the manager wants you to do but you think about the problem you are facing yourself.

Having to micromanage you by telling you exactly what you have to to do takes energy for the manager. Simply delegating the task in trusting you to figure out what's reasonable to do takes less time and energy for the manager.


If there is such a thing as common sense, it should take a very long time to have similar experiences as everyone else. Don't take it too literally, it's just an expression.

Are you able to put yourself in your boss's position and have an idea of what his/her world is like and what is important? This take time and a willingness to observe and stop thinking about what is best for you. You're there to assist other people so they are better at their jobs.

Make sure you don't repeat the same mistakes. Write down requests. Let your boss know that you are writing it down and that he may have to slow down. If you make a mistake, make a note of that. Make sure you fully understand what went wrong and what you need to do to make it right.

Don't consider your boss as being too much of an expert in this area. After all, he's the one who things he has so much common sense, yet wasn't smart enough to hire someone with the same. It's possible you're being blamed for his failures, so I don't know what you can really do about that.

So far it doesn't seem like there are any consequences (Other than constantly being told you don't have common sense which is offensive and gets old after awhile.), so he must think you will improve. Stick with it. Don't take it personally. Someone will recognize your talent eventually, but it may not be as a personal assistant.

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