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:
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- Breaking the Rules
- Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who
break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
- Passive Deceptions at Work
- Among the vast family of workplace deceptions, those that involve camouflage are both the most common
and the most difficult to detect. Here's a look at how passive camouflage can play a role in workplace
- Holding Back: II
- Members of high-performing teams rarely hold back effort. But truly high performance is rare in teams.
Here is Part II of our exploration of mechanisms that account for team members' holding back effort
they could contribute.
- 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?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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