Some decisions raise questions in the minds of observers of the decision maker's process. Was the decision unfair? Was self-dealing involved? Were some stakeholders denied appropriate opportunities to weigh in? Were potential objectors intimidated? Even when decision makers didn't undertake such actions, some observers might justifiably surmise that they did. They make their suppositions on the basis of phenomena that are generally called appearances.
For example, suppose that the relationship between a decision maker and a prospective objector has been difficult in the past, and the decision maker has made no special attempt to encourage the objector to express his or her concerns with some sense of safety. An observer might reasonably presume, without hard evidence, that the decision maker was relying on the dysfunctionality of the relationship between the decision maker and the prospective objector to ensure that the prospective objector would be intimidated enough to withhold any objections. A wise decision maker can avoid this difficulty either by making amends with the prospective objector in advance of the decision, or by initiating a conversation to encourage him or her to express candidly any concerns that had not yet been expressed.
In past postings, I've described numerous examples of problems associated with the appearances of the actions we take — or actions we fail to take. People are of course free to interpret the actions of others in any way they choose. But we can learn to reduce the likelihood of others making unfavorable misinterpretations by taking care to consider appearances. And we can learn to avoid making inaccurate interpretations ourselves by understanding the factors that drive these errors.
Here's Part I We can learn to reduce the likelihood
of others making unfavorable
misinterpretations by taking care
to consider appearancesof a continuing collection of situations in which intentional effort can reduce the likelihood that others — or ourselves — will come to unfavorable and inaccurate conclusions based on appearances. Let's begin with two relatively better-known appearance anti-patterns.
- Appearance of impropriety
- This category of appearance anti-patterns is perhaps the most widely understood. Most of us recognize that ethical standards are more stringent than legal standards. Sometimes, though, even the ethical standard isn't tight enough — we must also avoid the appearance of impropriety. See "On the Appearance of Impropriety," Point Lookout for December 2, 2009, for more.
- What can make avoiding such appearances so difficult is a cognitive bias known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. This error in thinking arises from our tendency to incorrectly attribute motivations to others. We tend to attribute too much to the character of others and not enough to the circumstances that constrain their behavior. This probably traces to the difficulty of seeing the world as others see it, a difficulty that can also create obstacles for us when we try to anticipate whether others will see our own actions as bordering on impropriety.
- Unsolicited constructive criticism
- Constructive criticism, widely called feedback, has constructive effects only to the extent that the recipient receives it as constructive. A criticism might have been intended to be constructive, but if the recipient regards it as a malicious attack, it's unlikely to lead to a constructive outcome. And the recipient of the criticism is solely responsible for determining whether or not to perceive the criticism as a malicious attack.
- To enhance the chances of a constructive outcome, ask for permission before delivering such comments. Requesting permission can help distinguish your actions from the unintended appearance of malicious attack, even if the subject of the criticism is someone you supervise. Despite what many supervisors believe, the supervisory relationship doesn't include blanket permission to criticize at any time and in any setting. See "Feedback Fumbles," Point Lookout for April 2, 2003, for more.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Currying Favor
- The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though —
it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- Using Indirectness at Work
- Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information
indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore
well-being and comity within the organization.
- 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.
- Big Egos and Other Misconceptions
- We often describe someone who arrogantly breezes through life with swagger and evident disregard for
others as having a "big ego." Maybe so. And maybe not. Let's have a closer look.
- Fear/Anxiety Bias: I
- When people don't feel safe enough to report the true status of the work underway in an organization,
managers receive an inaccurate impression of the state of the organization. To understand this dynamic,
we must understand psychological safety.
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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