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:
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- A Critique of Criticism: II
- To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to,
and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of
- Getting Into the Conversation
- In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities
to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation
can be challenging for some.
- Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: III
- Skip-level interviews — dialogs between a subordinate and the subordinate's supervisor's supervisor
— can be hazardous. Here's Part III of a little catalog of the hazards, emphasizing subordinate-initiated
- 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?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 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.