It's December, and I'm visiting family for our seasonal reunion, staying at my mother's home. As every year, we'll be celebrating the holidays and my niece's birthday. This visit has some interesting family dynamics, like all such visits, but that's another story. The lesson for me this year is about perceptions.
It's a cold winter day, and I decide to buy a birthday gift for my niece. My mother lives near three shopping malls, and my destination is the mall furthest away. You can't quite see it from the front window, but it isn't very far, so I decide to walk.
This choice astounds my mother, who insists that I drive. I don't know how long the walk will be, but I'm guessing maybe a little more than an hour. With assurances to my mother about my physical abilities, I bundle up and set off.
Cutting across parking lots and shopping mall landscaping, I arrive at the store, make my purchase, and return in just under 30 minutes. My mother is surprised, but even I am shocked. How could my time estimate have been so far off?
I suddenly realize that I haven't walked much around here — it's an automobile world, with highways, red lights, and heavy traffic. My perceptions of distances are really perceptions of the time it takes to drive. I had been using a driving filter to project a walking experience.
It's a common mistake. We think we're making valid extrapolations when we aren't. Here are some of the filters that distort our perceptions.
- This is just like that
- Sometimes we believe that the situation we face is familiar when it actually isn't. This is the mistake I made.
- How We often think
that we're seeing
things as they are
when we aren'tdoes this situation differ from the situations you know? How is it similar? Are the differences and similarities important?
- Bias and preference
- Especially if they're very strong, our biases and preferences affect our judgment.
- Our biases sometimes arise from our investments. What's at stake? Is there much to gain or lose?
- Illusions of independence
- If someone who commands us with authority requires a certain course of action, then our judgment about its feasibility is possibly suspect. And the same is true if the contemplated action is fashionable.
- To accept that authority or fashion influences our perceptions is to accept our limitations — a difficult thing to do.
- I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date
- If urgent action is required, we sometimes decide that we have no more time to think; no more time for caution.
- Usually the opposite is true: with urgency comes enhanced need for thought and caution.
One common filter many of us share is a belief that we, personally, always see things as they are — unclouded by bias, authority, habit, urgency, or fashion. This "no-filter" filter is perhaps the most dangerous filter of all.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- I Think, Therefore I Laugh
- Humor is fun — that's why they call it "funny." If you add humor to your own work environment,
you'll reduce your level of stress, increase your creativity, and drive your enemies nuts.
- Down So Low the Only Place to Go Is Up
- The past few years have been hard. Some of us have lost hope. What do you do when you're down
so low the only place to go is up?
- What's So Good About Being Laid Off?
- Layoffs during the holiday period of November 15 through January 15 are far more common than you might
think. Losing your job, or fearing that you might, is always difficult, but at this time of year it's
especially helpful to keep in mind that the experience does have a bright side.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error
- When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend
to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we
seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
- The Loopy Things We Do at Work
- At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference
between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on
might just help keep you untwisted.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.