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:
- Dismissive Gestures: III
- Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge
or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and
they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: III
- In workplace politics, attackers have significant advantages that explain, in part, their surprising
success rate. In this third part of our series on political attacks, we examine the psychological advantages
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
- Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict.
These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series
we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends.
- Unethical Coordination
- When an internal department or an external vendor is charged with managing information about a large
project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior.
What's the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur?
See also Workplace Politics and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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