How Do You Really Know What Works For Your Small Business?

How do you know what works for your business?

And once you have something that’s working, how do you maintain your confidence in the face of outside influence?

How do you objectively weigh new information without denying your own knowledge & experience?

These questions fascinate me.

As do questions like:

  • How do I know whether my body is telling me to eat because it wants fuel or pleasure… or simply because I’m bored? (And do I really need to know the difference?)
  • How do I know whether I really need a rest day or whether I don’t want to run because it’s cold outside? (And how do I know whether my knowing is influenced by true somatic cues or whether it’s diet culture talking?)
  • How do I know whether a goal is legitimately important to me or whether I’m just trying to earn another merit badge? (And do I really need to know what my ultimate goal is in the first place?)

I believe these are the kinds of questions we all struggle with.

We wholeheartedly want to trust ourselves, feel confident about our choices, and do what’s best for us…

…while also constantly wrestling with self-doubt, cultural conditioning, and marketing messages that lead us to question our own knowledge.

Fair warning: I’m about to take us down a bit of a philosophical rabbit hole. But I’m going to try to do it gently because I think how we know “what works” is super important.

The questions I’ve posed above are all epistemological questions.

From Merriam-Webster, epistemology is, “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.

Epistemology is a whole branch of philosophy. And because it theorizes around how we know what we know, epistemology at the foundation of philosophical discourse in general.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the challenge of figuring out what we really know keeps even professional philosophers up at night!

Now, here is where you might be thinking, “Tara, facts are facts. Either something is true or it isn’t. Either you know or you don’t.”

And that feels very timely, right? We want our politicians to believe in science and the corporations that employ millions of underpaid workers to believe that paying a living wage will benefit their bottom line. We want our community leaders to believe that systemic oppression is really hurting people.

That’s what the facts say.

And I agree. (Not that you need me to agree for these things to be true!)

But I also know that “facts,” as we recognize them today, can be manipulated.

Metrics can tell all nature of stories depending on how we present them.

And not every decision can be based on the knowledge of facts or data either.

This is the key—because a lot of what we “know” isn’t based on facts or data. There are things you know about how your business works that I can’t learn from looking at your P&L. There are things you know about your body that a doctor can’t know from looking at your bloodwork, let alone the number on a scale.

Eurocentric society and especially capitalist culture have tried to invalidate all other forms of knowing. We need facts that we can optimize. We need science that we can exploit. Sebene Selassie writes in You Belong:

With colonization came epistemicide. … Epistemicide is the killing of knowledge. It refers to the wiping out of ancient ways of knowing. There was a rationalist/scientific paradigm within European Enlightenment that spread from the hard sciences to the social sciences and into the humanities. This worldview rendered nonscientific knowledge systems invalid.

We learn to question any knowledge that can’t be backed up with cold hard facts or black & white metrics.

So let’s bring that back to business.

Today, we have the ability to know more about the behavior of customers and the functionality of our companies through data than ever before.

We have a massive amount of data points at our fingertips (if we have the resources to figure out how to access them).

Paying attention to these metrics will tell us everything we need to know about our businesses—or so “they” say.

Plenty of marketers bank on their access to more data points and more results than you have to tell you what you don’t know about your business.

They use epistemic domination (i.e. they know more & better) to get you to question your own knowledge.

Which is not to say that there aren’t people who know more about marketing, sales, business models, advertising, etc… than you or I do. It’s just that that expertise shouldn’t come at the expense of your own agency in knowing.

Compounding this is the fact that many of us don’t have a strong sense of epistemic authority in the first place.

Yesterday, I watched a fantastic lecture by Kate Manne called, “He Said, She Said: Mansplaining, Gaslighting, and Epistemic Entitlement.” In it, she described a scenario all women, BIPOC, and non-binary folks are familiar with: being told about something you’re an expert in by a man with less experience & expertise—in other words, mansplaining.

Now look, I’m not going to rail against mansplaining here. I know this is a term that can really shut down conversation—which is a form of epistemic domination itself… but I digress.

The term Professor Manne uses instead, epistemic entitlement, is more apt to where I’d like to go.

Epistemic entitlement, as she describes it, is “the right to be right.”

We all have different levels epistemic entitlement in different domains.

You have a higher level of epistemic entitlement for things you have direct experience with or expertise in. I have a very high level of epistemic entitlement for what I know about my body, my business, and my kid.

You have a lower level of epistemic entitlement for things that you don’t have direct experience with and possess little information (scientific or otherwise) about. I have much less epistemic entitlement when it comes fine art, home buying, or yogic philosophy. They’re just not my domains of experience or expertise.

Your level of epistemic entitlement should translate to a predictable power dynamic in a relationship.

But it often doesn’t.

There are always power dynamics at play. We work toward equity by understanding and accounting for them.

You expect that in an area where you have a high level of knowledge, others will defer to that knowledge. You expect that you have a lot to learn from someone who has a high level of knowledge in an area in which you do not. And when you share a relative level of knowledge with someone in an area, you expect to trade notes.

Instead, that power dynamic is flipped. Someone or something with less authority on the subject takes on a dominating role in the relationship. In these cases, we start to question what we know and what we don’t know and further lose touch with our power & agency.

I think that pretty well describes the state of information overload and competing messages we constantly find ourselves in.

Consider what domains you have high, low, and relative levels of epistemic entitlement in.

What domains have you earned the right to authority in through experience or expertise?

What domains do you have authority in by simply being?

And then consider the last time your knowing was questioned in some way.

Maybe a doctor, a coach, a stranger on the internet, your partner, or a friend questioned your experience. Your authority might have been undermined in a 1:1 scenario or via a marketing message at scale. It may or may not have been done deliberately. It may or may not have been done maliciously.

Regardless, when our epistemic authority is frequently questioned or invalidated, we start to question whether we really know anything at all.

People socialized as women, non-binary people, disabled people, and people of color experience this over & over again throughout our lifetimes. The damage compounds when we’re at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.

We find ourselves defaulting to a role of less epistemic authority in our relationships and dealings.

We welcome other people (and it doesn’t have to be men) telling us what is true because we’re so used to other people seeming to have the upper-hand on knowledge.

Now, I absolutely don’t want to exclude the menfolk in this. Many, many men learn to question their knowledge too—even as they are extended epistemic entitlement in domains where it is not earned.

And many men are on the receiving end of epistemic domination, whether it’s in their businesses, their families, or their bodies.

When we’re used to being in a position of epistemic weakness, we’re more likely to believe when someone tells us “that’s how it is”—whether that’s objectively or subjectively true or not.

We’re more likely to question our own knowing. We’re more likely to ignore ways of knowing that transcend metrics or data.

That’s why so many of us feel like we’re in a constant state of questioning ourselves and what we know about our businesses.

It’s a dynamic as old as time at play in our own experiences of life & work.

Business coach with only a cursory knowledge of social media marketing tells you that you have to be on all the platforms? Well, you’re pretty sure that your schedule doesn’t allow for that and that you don’t really get sales from social media… but they must know better than you do.

They don’t.

Client with a financial interest in lowballing your price tells you that the job is worth significantly lower than you quoted? Well, your friend got twice that for a smaller project but this client must know better than you do.

They don’t.

Someone in a Facebook group tells you what you should do with your business? Well, they don’t really know anything about you or your business but they seem to know what they’re talking about.

They don’t.

You find yourself denying your own experience to squeeze into “what’s true” based on other people’s unearned authority.

Now again, I’m not trying to argue that you already know everything you need to know or that other people don’t know more than you about certain things.

Just this morning, I asked my Facebook ad manager what she would do if the budget were no issue. It’s an issue—but I want all the information! She works with a deeper set of experience and expertise than I have about Facebook ads. But I know my own business best.

So ultimately the decision is up to me—and, because Rita is not someone who wields her epistemic authority indiscriminately, she’ll be glad for whatever decision I make.

It’s a truly collaborative relationship.

adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy:

I am not against hierarchy. I notice hierarchies in my life and attention all the time, inside my own preferences for whom I spend my waking hours with and how I like to spend my time. I also deeply value experience and natural affinity for things—I am oriented towards healing and not math, so I don’t offer myself up to create budgets for people. I follow other people’s leadership around math, I offer leadership around healing, which comes more naturally to me. That give and take creates room for micro-hierarchies in a collaborative environment.

Rita has her domain authority—which put hers at the top of the advertising hierarchy. I have my domain authority—which puts me at the top of the what’s-right-for-my-business hierarchy.

Now, questioning our own knowledge-through-experience is bad enough.

But there is one more consequence of unearned epistemic entitlement that I want to dive into (quickly, I promise):

The more we question our own self-knowledge, the less likely we are to actually ask for help.

We might be willing to learn something new (i.e. take a course or hire a consultant). But we’re less willing to enter into the kind of support that requires us to exercise our epistemic authority.

Why? Well, so many reasons, maybe you’ve:

  • Experienced domination in past conversations and believe that domination is the natural result of asking for help
  • Become more confused or uncertain when asking for help because you received competing messages about what you “should” do next
  • Internalized that asking for help gives the perception that you lack epistemic authority in the first place
  • Shared a story or experience that others have dismissed as untrue or a misinterpretation of events

This type of experience shakes you. When it happens over and over again (as it is likely to have), it can create a much more guarded way of interacting with the world, with authority, and with self-knowledge.

I believe most of us are getting pretty tired of being so guarded.

Which I say as a young, able-bodied, cisgender white woman with far fewer reasons to question my epistemic authority than you might have.

Okay, so why 2000+ words on something so arcane?

Because when you name something, you can change it.

When it’s just a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, it’s hard to address.

Now when that feeling crops up (or, ya know, like all of the time), you can say, “Oh! Someone or something with dubious epistemic entitlement is questioning my own epistemic authority!”

You will be very impressive at dinner parties when those happen again.

But more importantly, you can find groundedness in your own knowledge—your experiences, your expertise, and what you’ve learned about how your business (or anything else) works.

That doesn’t mean you close yourself off to new information. It simply means that you take in new information from a place of confidence & groundedness.

This is why I love talking about “what works.”

There are times that I do have the epistemic authority to say “here’s what I see working” from the vantage point of observing hundreds of small businesses in fine detail.

There are other times when I am curious about what someone knows about their own business and rely on their epistemic authority.

And finally, there are times when I throw my hands up in the air and cry out, “What works?!?”

“What works” gives me a way to float between each of these 3 epistemic stances. And ultimately, I hope that benefits you.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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