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 antipatterns.
- Appearance of impropriety
- This category of appearance antipatterns 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:
- The Costs of Threats
- Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats
to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships,
and create an atmosphere of fear.
- Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations
- Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status —
they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of
doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog
of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
- Conflicts of Interest in Reporting
- Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts.
Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading
and unreliable reports.
- Durable Agreements
- People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to
assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III
- In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand.
With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses
in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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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.