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:
- The Slippery Slope That Isn't
- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope"
tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks
that push our buttons.
- Intimidation Tactics: Touching
- Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to
intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted,
what can you do?
- Handling Heat: I
- Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of
the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is
everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
- The Problem of Work Life Balance
- When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term
itself is part of the problem.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.