Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 26;   June 26, 2019: Appearance Antipatterns: I

Appearance Antipatterns: I

by

Last updated: December 16, 2019

Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects.
Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska

Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, in a 2017 photo. He has been representing Alaska since 1973. In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded an investigation into allegations that Rep. Young had improperly arranged for a federal appropriation to be earmarked for a highway interchange in Florida, which he allegedly knew would produce financial benefit for one of his campaign donors. The FBI found that there was insufficient evidence to charge Rep. Young with crimes, but it did refer the matter to the Ethics Committee of the House of Representatives. The alleged behavior, which apparently did occur, violated House rules, and in any case provides a clear example of the appearance of impropriety. Read a report that appeared in the New York Times and read the (redacted) report of the FBI. The photo is an official portrait by the U.S. House of Representatives, courtesy WikiPedia.

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 appearances
of 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.

Next time we'll examine Appearance Antipatterns associated with intentional or unintentional deception.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Appearance Antipatterns: II  Next Issue

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