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Volume 13, Issue 26;   June 26, 2013: Passive Deceptions at Work

Passive Deceptions at Work

by

Among the vast family of workplace deceptions, those that involve camouflage are both the most common and the most difficult to detect. Here's a look at how passive camouflage can play a role in workplace deception.
An orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) perched on an orchid

An orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) perched on an orchid. Indigenous to southeast Asia, it mimics a pink orchid in color and texture. It remains motionless on the flower until prey arrives, and then strikes. Photo (cc) Luc Viatour (www.Lucnix.be) available at Wikipedia.

Most people are familiar with some forms of camouflage as it's used in nature or by the military. The idea usually relates to disguising or cloaking a physical entity so as to make detection difficult. In nature, camouflage often takes the form of protective coloration. Military applications involve similar techniques, but there are also more sophisticated disguises.

Military theorists recognize two classes of deception. Passive deception disguises an existing capability, facility, or intention. Active deception makes a nonexistent capability, facility, or intention appear to be real.

At work, deceptions of all kinds are often a tool of politics. Applying what scientists know about deception in nature, and what military theorists know about deception in war, we can gain new insights into its use in workplace politics. Here are two examples of deceptions in workplace politics that employ passive camouflage.

Disruptive coloration
The black and white coloration of killer whales exemplifies what's called disruptive coloration. The color pattern contradicts the whale's body shape, which gives it an advantage. In the often-uneven light of the subsurface marine environment, other animals might not recognize the killer whale until too late.
In preparation for downsizing, managers must select projects for termination from among projects underway or planned. In some cases, sound decisions require project status reviews that are either sudden or beyond the routine review. If these reviews occur only in preparation for downsizing, conducting them sets off rumors that could trigger an unwanted exodus of employees who believe that they're about to be terminated themselves. Making such project reviews routine prevents them from being seen as a signal of downsizing. With respect to project reviews, such a practice disrupts the boundary between normal operation and preparation for downsizing.
Mimesis
In nature, Applying what scientists know about
camouflage in nature, and what military
theorists know about camouflage in
war, we can gain new insights
into its use in workplace politics
mimesis is mimicry. In the context of camouflage, the flower mantises, which mimic flowers, provide good examples. Typically, flower mantises position themselves on a plant and hold still, or slowly sway back and forth, mimicking one of the plant's flowers, until an insect lands close enough to be caught. Some flower mantises have dark spots on their bodies that act as decoys for actual insects.
In reorganizations, there is sometimes a need to ensure orderly transitions of responsibilities from employees who will be discharged. To ensure that they won't depart before the transition of their responsibilities is complete, and to ensure that they'll cooperate willingly, these employees are sometimes assigned fictitious new responsibilities. Convinced by this mimicry that they can rely on continued employment, these employees remain in place, carrying out their new assignments while they're being debriefed about their former assignments. When the debriefing is complete, they're discharged, and the fictitious efforts that held them in place are terminated.

These are just two examples of passive deceptions at work. Studying nature's tricks can help us detect many more. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Active Deceptions at Work  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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