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:
- Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
- Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless
use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
- Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost
way more than most of us appreciate. Understanding how much we spend on meetings might help us get control
of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
- The Artful Shirker
- Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around
them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- Career Opportunity or Career Trap: II
- When an opportunity seems too good to be true, it might be. Although we easily decline small opportunities,
declining an enticing career opportunity can be enormously difficult. Here's Part II of a set of indicators
that an opportunity might actually be a trap.
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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- 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.