In the workplace, we use formal interrogations as components of investigations to determine whether or to what extent organizational policy has been violated. As we discussed last time, fairness is a goal of formal interrogations. The process is sanctioned by the organization and policies govern how they're conducted. For example, the person being interrogated knows that an interrogation is underway, and the organization might even provide assistance and advice to him or her. "Interview" might be a better term for the process.
But there's another form of workplace interrogation — one for which the term "interview" fits not at all well. I call it implicit interrogation because the person interrogated — whom I've been calling "Reese" (R for Responder) is rarely aware that an interrogation is underway. In implicit interrogations, the person seeking information — whom I've been calling "Alex" (A for Asker) — takes steps to conceal the interrogation, or failing that, to conceal the objective of the interrogation. When an implicit interrogation is well executed, Reese remains ignorant of what information Alex was seeking, and indeed, unaware that an implicit interrogation is happening.
In this The essence of implicit interrogation
is deceptive inquiry into what
a person knows or doesn't knowpart of our exploration of implicit interrogation we describe seven examples of tactics and strategies the interrogator (Alex) can employ to obtain the desired information with a low probability of the respondent (Reese) recognizing that an interrogation has occurred. I'll also use the name Incident to denote the situation that is the subject of the Implicit Interrogation. By a coin flip, I determined that Alex is female and Reese male.
- Choice of interrogator
- Before the interrogation begins, those who seek the information must choose an interrogator. If Reese has a trusting relationship with someone among the people who want the information, then that trusted person will usually be the designated Alex. Otherwise, someone else Reese trusts will be recruited for the role of Alex.
- If Reese notices that someone (Alex) with whom he ordinarily has little contact is suddenly interested in spending time together, and if Reese is aware that he knows something about the Incident, he would do well to approach with caution any conversations with Alex. Such a change in Alex's behavior could be an indicator that an implicit interrogation is underway.
- Casual setting
- To allay Reese's fears and to prevent him from suspecting that an interrogation is in process, Alex will choose a casual setting for their conversation — one that's familiar to Reese. The setting will be public, but it will be one in which they have "enterprise privacy" — no one from the organization is likely to be able to overhear their conversation. Examples: restaurants, cafes, or perhaps a walk outside on a nice day. Alex will adopt a casual demeanor, or she might even appear to be distracted by the scenery, the menu, or the food or drink.
- Disclosing a "confidence"
- By disclosing a confidence, Alex hopes to build Reese's trust in Alex. Such disclosure creates a pseudo-conspiracy between Alex and Reese. A naïve Reese will experience this conspiracy as power over Alex, because Reese would then be in a position to report to someone that Alex has disclosed the confidence. Confidences used in this way are rarely of any value. Although they might be secrets unknown to Reese, they're likely well known in the circles in which Alex travels.
- Asking for advice
- Alex can ask Reese for advice on a topic Reese regards as within his area of expertise. Alex might or might not actually need the requested advice — that isn't the point of the request. The point of the request is flattery. By flattering Reese, Alex hopes to further assuage any uneasiness on Reese's part.
- Similarly, Alex can ask Reese to assess a situation or the performance of another person. Being asked for his views about a person or a matter not normally within his span of responsibility can induce in Reese a sense that his opinion matters, which can cause Reese to speculate that Alex respects his views and might be able to help advance Reese's career. Alex's purpose is to flatter Reese and distract him from the extraordinary nature of the interactions taking place in the context of the implicit interrogation.
- Masking conversation and questions
- At some point in the conversation, to elicit the information she seeks, Alex might need to ask Reese a direct question. To limit the probability that Reese might recognize that question, Alex can include it among other questions, conversation, and banter. For example, if Alex wants to know whether Don attended the afternoon session of the conference call, she might ask about Don only after asking about Cole and before asking about Ellie.
- Making intentional misstatements
- Maneuvering Reese into volunteering information is another technique for concealing that an implicit interrogation is taking place. One technique for doing this is to make an intentional misstatement, hoping that Reese will correct it. For example, to determine whether Don attended the afternoon session of the conference call, Alex might say, "I heard that Don was out at the client site yesterday and missed the conference call. How did it go without him?"
- Changing the subject suddenly
- Swift and sudden changes of subject can indicate an attempt to distract from whatever has just been said. Perhaps Alex felt that her previous statement was revealing, or perhaps Reese provided her with a piece of critical information, and she no longer needs to pursue the previous thread. Or perhaps Reese said or did something (or didn't say or didn't do something) that Alex interpreted as revealing that Reese might have grasped that an implicit interrogation is taking place. In any case, Alex probably wants to distract attention from the previous point.
Certainly there are dozens more of these ploys. Whether they work by building trust or by deception, the goal is the same: make Reese comfortable enough to tell what he knows without arousing his suspicions. Implicit interrogation is therefore at or beyond the bounds of ethical behavior. If you find yourself conducting such an exercise, reconsideration might be in order. First in this series Top
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More articles on Devious Political Tactics:
- 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
- Pushing the "Stupid" Button
- Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog
of tactics to watch for.
- Behavioral Indicators of Political Risk
- Avoiding dangerous political interactions is easier if you know what to look for. Among the indicators
of possible trouble are the behaviors of the people around you.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
- Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions
that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant
demands for attention and admiration.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: V
- When someone at work exhibits narcissistic behavior, others respond. Some respond by accommodating the
behavior, and those accommodations can include special and favorable treatment of the person behaving
narcissistically. That's one place where trouble can begin.
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- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
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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.