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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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
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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.