“I can’t do anything because ‘they’ have made it impossible for me to do anything [by not recognizing me, by making stupid decisions, by promoting the wrong people, . . .].” This is the common sentiment expressed or thought by someone who plays the Victim game. Senior people may play this game by acting as if they’re retired in place. Younger people may simply not work to their full capacity. No matter the age of the people who play the victim, they all spend a great deal of time grousing about why they can’t accomplish what they need to accomplish and theorizing about the reasons for it. They often enlist others in these Victim game discussions, and it’s easy for a victim mentality to spread and infect a team or other group.
Examples: Because the Victim game can be played in many different ways, we offer two examples here.
Max was a country manager in China for a pharmaceutical company. He had orchestrated the Company’s move to China two years ago and had set up operations in that company. The first year went much better than expected, but then a sudden downturn occurred for a number of reasons—increased competition from other large pharmaceutical companies, a quality problem with one of their products, the Chinese government’s requiring significantly higher financial commitment from Max’s company to operate in certain areas, and so on. Max responded by playing the Victim game rather than trying to fix the problems that confronted his company. He began spending an increased amount of time sending memos, e-mails, research, and other forms of communication to headquarters detailing all the factors that were affecting their group’s performance. Max was tying up his human resources in justifying their failure in various overly detailed reports, the conclusion of each being that the China group was at the mercy of forces beyond its control.
In another example, Dennis, a thirty-five-year-old manager with a large consumer products company, was asked to join a cross-functional team assembled to help improve the company’s knowledge management process. The team included relatively young managers from most of the company’s functions— Dennis was in the corporate communications department.
The team was set up because the CEO was a proponent of knowledge management, and he felt that a great deal of organizational know-how wasn’t being captured—or that if it was, it wasn’t being disseminated to the right people at the right time. Dennis’s team was supposed to work on ways to solve these problems.
Dennis had joined the company six years ago; it was his second job after having received an MBA. Initially, he was excited to be part of the organization, but in the last two years, he was twice passed over for promotions, and the boss he liked left the company and was replaced by one whom Dennis didn’t like as much. More signifi cant, the culture was somewhat politicized, and the people who did well tended to be those who were skilled at building the right type of relationships.
During the early meetings of the cross-functional team, Dennis didn’t speak much, but when he did, it was usually to point out the inherent difficulty of making knowledge management a reality. He agreed that it was a great concept in theory, but in practice he doubted it would do the organization much good. Dennis wondered if their time was being used wisely. He mentioned that a few years ago he was part of another cross-functional team dealing with a diversity initiative, and described how they just spun their wheels and none of their suggestions were ever implemented. As the knowledge management team moved toward making recommendations, Dennis became more vocal; with regard to a given recommendation, he would ask, “Do you really think management is going to approve that?” Or he would warn the team not to make a certain type of recommendation because “it’s too costly, and by recommending it, management will see it as an indirect criticism, since they’ve already spent a huge amount of money on knowledge management technologies.”
Dennis managed to ratchet up other team members’ sense of victimhood. People began relating their own stories about how the company (that is, a boss) failed to take a suggestion seriously or how they felt ineffectual in another type of situation. Eventually, the team reached consensus on recommendations that were perfectly acceptable and perfectly uninspired. By engaging in a multiplayer Victim game, initiated by Dennis, the team ended up opting for a “safe” recommendation rather than the recommendation they collectively thought was the best for the company.