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:
- My Boss Gabs Too Much
- Your boss has popped into your office for another morning gab session. Normally, it's irritating, but
today you have a tight deadline, so you're royally ticked. What can you do?
- The Power of Situational Momentum
- For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach
these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit
situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
- Pariah Professions: I
- In some organizations entire professions are held in low regard. Their members become pariahs to some
people in the rest of the organization. When these conditions prevail, organizational performance suffers.
- The Artful Shirker
- Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around
them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
- Gratuitous Complexity as a Type III Error
- Some of the technological assets we build — whether hardware, software, or procedures —
are gratuitously complex. That's an error, but an error of a special kind: it can be the correct solution
to the wrong problem.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And 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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