The term often used to describe how our actions might be interpreted by others — as opposed to how we mean them or what our intentions are — is appearances. Some tend to pay little attention to appearances, preferring to focus entirely on the task at hand and their intentions relative to that task. Paying too little attention to appearances can lead to trouble, because it leaves space for others to make up what they don't know.
But paying too much attention to appearances is also problematic. When making decisions, factors related to appearances are generally less well correlated to outcome quality than are factors related to the substance of the decision. That's one reason why decisions made on the basis of appearances rather than substance are particularly vulnerable to error. This applies not only to the appearances of the people or things being judged, but also to the decision itself.
The inappropriate use of appearances is especially effective when deception is the intention. Here are four examples of deception — intentional or not — based on incongruence between appearance and substance.
- Threats cloaked in humor
- Some people use humor to cloak actual threats, in the hope that the humor might make the threats less obvious. Example: "If you get this work done by Friday, you can keep working here." Typically, when this technique is in use, the humor is weak. If the offender is called for threatening, the humor is strong enough to support a defense of I-was-only-joking.
- In these situations, The inappropriate use of appearances
is especially effective when
deception is the intentionthe offender is creating a false appearance — a mask, in a sense — that can serve as a defense if needed. There is no place for threats like this in a healthy workplace. See "Responding to Threats: I," Point Lookout for February 20, 2008, for more.
- Incongruous auxiliary design elegance
- When the elegance of the design of some auxiliary aspect of a product surpasses the product's actual utility, or surpasses the quality of the user experience, the provider of the product has emphasized appearance in preference to value. The user might then feel frustrated or deceived.
- The most obvious aspect of the product that can be exploited in this way is physical appearance or screen appearance. But also included are advertising, Web presence, packaging, demonstrations, try-before-you-buy programs, and almost any other attribute of the product. If the attributes prospective buyers use to make the purchasing decision are far more elegant than the product itself, appearance abuse might be afoot.
- Hyper-elegant procedural forms
- Many organizational procedures have forms associated with them — performance improvement plans, expense reports, nominations for commendations, applications for procedural waivers, and on and on. Some forms are components of software packages that support processes run by human resources, finance, customer relations, and facilities management, to name a few. And for the most part, these forms are serviceable if at times a little annoying. But there are other forms, usually created in-house, as word processor or spreadsheet documents. Some of these forms are appropriate and serviceable. But not all are.
- The forms I have in mind are hyper-elegant. They're beautiful, but unserviceable in the extreme. Fundamentally, they're electronic analogs of printed forms, in the analog intended for the user to complete them on a (shudder) typewriter. For example, they rarely support automated capture of the data entered by the people using them. And even though the computer "knows" both the date and the name of the person using the computer to complete the form, the form requires that users type their own names and dates. Often the "tab order" of the blanks is confused. (If you don't know what that means, you're among the fortunate few) The annoyances continue from there. The form is pretty, but it meets the needs of neither the user nor the organization.
- Overly polished proposals
- Proposals that are more polished in their presentation than they are in their substance tend to be received with a latent message that they are more fully developed and free of inconsistencies than they actually are. The appearance doesn't match the reality.
- After uncovering a number of objections that have inadequate answers, the recipients of these proposals begin to view the proposal as all flash and little substance. This perception might be accurate, but when it's inaccurate, the proposer can encounter insurmountable obstacles when trying to disabuse the recipient of this misperception. Prevent this problem by polishing the proposal's presentation to match the degree of finish in its substance.
Too little attention to appearances exposes you to the risk that your actions will be seen as unethical. Too much attention to appearances exposes you to the risk that the substance of your work will be assessed as less valuable than appearances would imply. Either error can lead to big trouble. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel
that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct.
What is going on?
- Worst Practices
- We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service,
here are some of the best worst practices.
- Stonewalling: II
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to
gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
- Social Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
- We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors,
and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do
we decide whose preferences rule?
- Bottlenecks: II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization
to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 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.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.