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:
- Responding to Threats: I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure
mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- The Politics of the Critical Path: II
- The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion
date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience
the unique politics of the critical path.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
- Unanswerable Questions
- Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable
questions and how can we respond?
- Implicit Interrogations
- Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced
and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation
is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the
nature of implicit interrogations?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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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.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.