Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that causes us to see in familiar things only their familiar uses. For example, the brine from a jar of hot cherry peppers is an excellent copper cleaner. This was probably an accidental discovery, because functional fixedness would probably prevent most of us from trying it without having heard of it.
The workplace provides opportunities for exploiting functional fixedness to disguise one's true motives. In Part I of this exploration we examined three ordinary actions that could be used for purposes other than what they seem. Here are about a dozen more. In some of them, the person deceived is the same as the person deceiving.
- Scheduling a meeting every week at a specific time to prevent others from scheduling meetings in that time slot
- As a meeting's chair, adding an agenda item to consume time in a meeting, thus preventing the meeting from addressing a later agenda item you don't want to be addressed
- As a meeting participant, wasting time in a meeting — being repetitive, asking unnecessarily detailed questions long-windedly, and so on — to prevent the meeting from addressing a later agenda item
- As a meeting participant, raising an issue about a previously decided question to distract the group from another question that could prove uncomfortable for you
- As a meeting participant, asking that the agenda The workplace provides opportunities
for exploiting functional fixedness
to disguise one's true motivesitems be re-ordered, claiming that you feel that one of the later items is urgent, when your actual purpose is to delay the item you want to avoid until later in the agenda, past the time when you know you'll have to leave for another meeting
- Accepting an invitation to one meeting to have a reason to decline another meeting scheduled at the same time, and which you don't want to attend
- Acquiring a new piece of equipment (computer, mobile phone, headset, eReader, whatever) to make yourself "more efficient" when you're actually seeking distraction from work you find boring or otherwise unpleasant
- Stopping work and setting off down the hall for yet another cup of coffee for the same reason as the equipment thing
- Tackling Task A, which you like, to justify delaying Task B, which you don't like, and to trick yourself into believing you're too busy to take on Task B
- Volunteering to take responsibility for an undesirable but low-risk task to avoid being assigned responsibility for an undesirable and high-risk task
- Dressing one or two notches above usual and leaving work early, to create the impression that you're interviewing somewhere for a new job, when you actually aren't doing any such thing
- Asking a favor not to get the favor, but to determine whether the target would be willing to grant a favor
- Baiting, bullying, threatening, or harassing someone just before a meeting, possibly privately, in order to put her or him on edge when you attack less directly during the meeting. The hope is that their response will be disproportionate to your criticism, which to others will appear to be fair.
You've probably noticed that many of these ploys are similar — they're the same pattern applied to different situations. That's a good thing, because it simplifies the task of recognizing variations when people use functional fixedness to conceal their true objectives. Watch carefully — you might find examples of your own to add to this collection. If you do, please send them along. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Bottlenecks: I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly
find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
- Influence and Belief Perseverance
- Belief perseverance is the pattern that causes us to cling more tightly to our beliefs when contradictory
information arrives. Those who understand belief perseverance can use it to manipulate others.
- Power Affect
- Expressing one's organizational power to others is essential to maintaining it. Expressing power one
does not yet have is just as useful in attaining it.
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication
patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
- Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do
cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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