Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 46;   November 18, 2009: Fill in the Blanks

Fill in the Blanks

by

When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
Winslow Homer's painting, Blackboard

Winslow Homer, Blackboard, 1877, watercolor on wove paper. Blackboards made of slate were used in the United States from 1801 through the late middle twentieth century. They can still be found in use, though they have been largely replaced, first by green boards and then by whiteboards and electronics. Though replaced, they remain a fixture of American speech: "like fingernails on a blackboard," "wipe the slate clean," "a slate of candidates," and as in this article "blank slate." The blackboard has returned lately, not in educational institutions, but in commercial settings, though it is (usually) made of something other than slate. You can find blackboards in eating and drinking establishments, and in markets, where they are used to advertise special offerings. See this video from CBS News about an artist employed by Whole Foods Market to create blackboard signs. The Winslow Homer painting is at the U.S. National Gallery of Art, a gift (partial and promised) of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. National Gallery of Art.

Make a list of the 30 people you work with most closely. Over the next few days, imagine answering questions like these about each person:

  • What are their career goals?
  • What parts of their jobs do they like most? Least?
  • How are they doing on their most important tasks?
  • Are they in trouble in anything they're doing?
  • Are they concealing any of those troubles?
  • How do they plan to resolve the problems, if there are any problems?

We don't usually speak candidly about these things. We might have a few close confidants, but for most of us, they number much less than 30. Most of us talk honestly about these things only outside of work. At work, we're mostly blank slates to each other.

Well, not totally blank. When we lack information about other people's motives, concerns, worries, or yearnings, we tend to speculate. We just make it up. Often, we believe we know what's going on for the people around us. And many of us just make it up without realizing we're making it up.

Many of us are working with semi-fictional or mostly-fictional representations of each other. It's risky, because the judgments and assumptions people make about each other are usually wrong. That collaborations work as well as they do is almost miraculous.

What can you do about this? When you can, help others avoid speculating by filling in the blanks about yourself.

You can't deny the obvious
When you're in serious trouble, so serious that it's obvious to many, denying its seriousness just isn't credible. "Everything is under control" isn't believable when the roof is falling in. Acknowledge the problems. Acknowledge that some aren't yet being addressed effectively. Say something about how you plan to change that. Detail isn't required. Demonstrating a grasp on reality is required.
Be (judiciously) open about your plans
If you have plans with regard to your area of responsibility, be sure your boss knows about them. Keeping your plans to yourself leaves opportunities for anxiety and worry. One exception: if your boss is a micromanager, openness about your plans invites yet more micromanagement. Be judicious.
You can't conceal personal problems completely
Most of us When you're in serious trouble,
so serious that it's obvious to
many, denying its seriousness
just isn't credible
can't consistently hide personal problems from everyone. The word gets out. Maybe people can't tell exactly what's troubling you, but they can tell that something is. Waiting to be asked, or denying that anything is wrong when you are asked, only adds to others' concerns. By contrast, preempting the inquiries by disclosing just a little information usually dampens curiosity. To those rude enough to demand details, you can respond, "I'd rather not say more." Since they probably wouldn't be satisfied with any level of detail, you'd eventually reach that point anyway. The sooner the better.

Filling in the blanks for others works best when you first fill in the blanks for yourself. Acknowledging my concerns begins with me. Go to top Top  Next issue: Action Item Avoidance  Next Issue

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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.

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