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Game of the Month

The Boss Said


When playing the Boss Said, people invoke the name of a senior executive to help them get what they want or to add weight to the points they’re making. They may make a request and imply that the CEO or some other executive wanted it done. In some instances, they may simply assume that this is what the boss wants. In other instances, they make it up.

The game transfers power from the boss to the person who is making the request and using the boss’s name. It often is played in cultures where communication is very formal and

hierarchical, and no one would dare to raise a challenge or even to ask for clarification from top executives.

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Victim“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.

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Pr-AcordoIn Pre-Deal, the player pretends that all the issues will be discussed in a meeting with persons x , y , and z , but in the meantime makes a pre-deal with a power broker in the organization, and the whole thing is a fait accompli. This is a classic meeting game, one that gives meetings a bad name.People spend hours and hours meeting, but it’s all just for show, because one person has an informal agreement with a key decision maker in the organization, and the other people in the meeting are in the dark about this deal.
Example: Margie had what she thought was a terrific way for her group to reduce costs, but she knew that if she presented it during the monthly meeting of the company’s financial group, it would engender endless debate and would take a long time for everyone to reach consensus. For this reason, Margie approached the CFO prior to the meeting and explained her cost reduction plan. The CFO liked the idea, and he agreed with Margie that if she were to present it during the next scheduled meeting, it could take weeks or even months before all the objections to it could be addressed. Therefore, the CFO asked Margie not to present the idea during the meeting; they would simply talk about the usual cost-cutting options. After the meeting, the CFO would announce that he had come up with a cost-cutting solution and that Margie would be in charge of implementing it.

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Kill the Messenger

Kill_the_messengerKilling the messenger is an ancient tradition: you take out your frustration on the people bringing you bad news, rather than on those who have created it. This is a game of kings, and it is also a game for leaders who lack a tolerance for negative information. Being able to absorb and learn from negative events is a critical skill for leaders today, yet rather than develop this skill, they play Kill the Messenger. The end result of this game is that people fi lter their reports to the boss, taking out any reportage that might engender an outburst. These leaders then operate from an unrealistically optimistic perspective; they think things are going great and are unable to plan for downturns or competitors’ moves.
Example: Forbasaw, a senior vice president with a marketing services agency, played Kill the Messenger whenever one of her people would tell her something about the fi rm’s clients that she didn’t want to hear. Instead of listening quietly and analyzing objectively, she would always respond with an accusation along the lines of “The bad news you’re telling me is a result of your not staying on top of the account.” In other words, Forbasaw couldn’t accept that clients would be unhappy for any reason except that their representative was doing a bad job. Of course, her people learned not to communicate clients’ unhappiness, so Forbasaw operated in a blissful bubble, thinking that everything was going fine when in fact there were serious problems with a number of clients but her team was now playing No Bad News.

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No Bad News

no_bad_newsIn No Bad News, players avoid or suppress negative data in relentless pursuit of a positive approach. This game can present itself in a variety of situations: avoiding giving someone negative feedback so his feelings won’t be hurt; refusing to make a decision on the company strategy because you don’t want to place higher priority on one area than on another; promoting a mediocre performer to another team so that you don’t have to fi re her; hiding poor results from a boss to avoid his wrath; and so on.

Example: Lucien sat down with Jean, his direct report,to discuss his performance review. Lucien was frustrated with Jean because of the latter’s lack of initiative and effort. Lucien knew that Jean was smart and highly competent, butalso that he was lazy. They had worked together for years, and Jean had always done a good job, but Lucien knew that he wasn’t growing or coming close to his potential. At the same time, Lucien didn’t want to hurt Jean’s feelings, so he watered down his negative remarks to the point that they seemed minor. Although he told Jean that he thought Jean could work harder on some projects, Lucien added, “but I know you have a lot on your plate, and doing more than you’re doing would be asking a lot.” Lucien plays this same No Bad News game with his bosses as well as his direct reports, putting a positive spin on just about everything. The problem, of course, is that no red fl ags go up when problems arise, as Lucien disguises those problems through the game.

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Pseudo Science

pseudoscienceIn this game, the player uses highly specific and often meaningless ratios and statistics to justify a decision. The proposal is given a kind of “sanctity” by the use of the numbers and ratios and benchmarks; this often renders the decision undiscussable in certain forums, and shifts attention to specific aspects of the issue that may not be the most important, but that support the player’s particular agenda.

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Big Splash Career Hopper

Big_Splash_Career_HopperIn this game, a manager new in a role develops a “big idea” (big splash) that will then be heavily marketed as both bold (entailing massive and rapid change) and successful (when judged in the very short term) and will justify his rapid promotion out of this job into another one (career hop), before the actual failure of this big idea catches up with him. In many instances the change is poorly thought through, and the concern during the change is less for the employees making the change than for the marketing and packaging of the change to the senior management (who may like the “ambitious” and “go-getting” tone of the initiative). This game can of course be played serially and constitute a significant part of a career, although it often catches up with a person when he has to remain in a position for a sustained period of time.

Example: Lydia, a manager of a marketing team, had been in position only a few weeks when she determined that what was really needed to “shake up” the team was a big drive oncategory management in a particular area. She spent a lot of time with consultants preparing the slides to sell to the global head of marketing, as well as effectively using all networking opportunities to pitch the initiative to other decision makers. However, she neglected to involve her own staff in this effort, and thereby missed some important feedback from the market that indicated that a different approach was required. Because Lydia had failed to communicate the rationale for the change to her team, they had no buy-in to the initiative. The change was pushed through (and a number of people who had real concerns that needed to be heard were sidelined as a result), and Lydia was able to sell the program as successful before it was really implemented. Lydia was soon in demand in another segment—she could “do the same for them”—and in less than twelve months, she had moved on before any tangible results of the program could be seen.

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Window Watcher

projetos_especiaisThe boss doesn’t want to fire someone (for financial reasons, for fear of lawsuits, or because of the possibility of some other form of unpleasantness), so he promotes her or moves her to a non-job (a role the Japanese sometimes refer to as window watching), therefore removing her from a position of influence. This is why some companies are filled with “deadwood”—people who keep jobs for years and never really accomplish anything, but don’t rock the boat. The Window Watcher game has a tremendously negative impact on productivity, an impact that is often invisible because the individuals given nonessential roles appear to be contributing employees. Part of the Window Watcher game involves creating the illusion that these people are still active, useful members of the organization while shuttling them to the side.

Example: Jim was a recently hired executive with a midsize leisure products manufacturer, and he came from a smaller organization that had been financially devastated by an employee discrimination lawsuit, filed by a woman who claimed
she was denied promotions because she rejected a boss’s romantic overtures. Jim believed that the boss had not made these overtures and that the woman had fabricated her story, but it caused him to play the Window Watcher game at his new company. In this instance, Sara, one of the direct reports he inherited, was sixty-two years old, and Jim thought that she wasn’t pulling her weight. At the same time, Jim viewed this employee as potentially vengeful and didn’t want to fire her and risk a lawsuit. Jim assigned her to a project that would take over a year to complete and removed her from the day-to-day operations of Jim’s unit. To make this move happen,
Jim had to spend a lot of time convincing his own boss that Sara had the skills that were necessary to the project, and he had to fill out a great deal of paperwork generated by HR. Even worse, it left Jim one person short of a full team, negatively impacting their productivity.

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gotcha-2In Gotcha, people act as if they receive points for identifying and communicating others' mistakes. This game is more likely to occur in companies that foster individual rather than collective recognition and that promote internal competition among employees to increase productivity.


Mistakes are seen as an opportunity to criticize others and put them down, and thus people hide mistakes rather than use them as learning opportunities. Also, any criticism will be seen as an attack, rather than as an opportunity for improvement.

Example: One CEO's favorite game was to go through "prereads" of presentations and try to identify the mistakes in advance. During the presentation, he would point out that "on page twenty-six, bullet point three is inconsistent with the data table on page seventeen." Even when the presenter was able to defend the inconsistency, the CEO would identify another and then another after that until he "caught" the presenter. Invariably, too much time and attention would be focused on analyzing the inconsistency, and the more important points the presenter was making were often lost.

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Slush Fund

slushTo play Slush Fund when discussing the following year's budget, a manager mislabels one section, creating a secret surplus to cope with overspending. The problem with this game is that it encourages managers to play fast and loose with their budgets, draining money from he corporate offers that they might not need. It also sets a bad recedent,communicating that budgets are not to be taken at face value and that playing games with them isn't just optional but necessary. Management eventually begins to suspect that managers are playing this game, and they begin questioning every line item in the budget, wasting enormous energy debating with managers whether item x is really necessary.Sometimes the slush fund even needs to be spent unnecessarily just to avoid questioning.

Example: Marcia, a midlevel manager at a consumer electronics company, routinely included an item in her budget labeled "special projects." Although Marcia would occasionally have a special project for which she needed money, she always allotted more money for special projects than she anticipated requiring. She rationalized this game by telling trusted colleagues that if she didn't have this slush fund, she would invariably go over budget, be chastised by her bosses, and be told that she needed to do a better job of watching her spending. "My way," she said, "I stay in management's good graces and make sure my department is properly funded."

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No Decision

no_decisionNo Decision involves finding innumerable reasons not to make a choice. Some of these reasons can make sense on the surface, but the underlying reason for playing this game is that if you don’t decide, you can’t be punished for making a bad decision. The impetus for playing the No Decision game can come from a variety of sources: people are new to the function or business and don’t trust the information they receive; they come from a slow-moving industry where there was more time to make decisions; they are intimidated by a chaotic, fast-moving environment and believe they’ll be “safe” if they avoid deciding.  Players of this game are often skilled at looking as if they’re simply being cautious and are focused on making the right decision slowly. In reality, they are creating task forces, holding meetings, issuing white papers, and creating the impression that they’re taking action while in reality they are simply biding their time.




The Old War Hero

old_war_heroThe Old War Hero has seen everything before and therefore knows the potential outcome of every decision. This game involves assuming the mantle of the grizzled veteran, and because this person has been through the wars, his views are not subject to challenge.
Example:  When discussing a potential new approach to a labor relations dispute, which involved a bit of a gamble regarding employee bonus payouts, a junior HR manager was told by the senior HR manager that “We tried that in ‘76 and it backfired.” When the junior HR manager tried to get more details to determine whether the situation was analogous or not, the details were skimmed over with the clear view that the approach would backfire again.

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Games of the Month

Token Involvement

To play Token Involvement, a manager conducts opinion surveys, focus group, or involvement meetings to communicate that "your opinion matters", but these activities are done only to make people feel involved rather than actually to involve them. The real intention is just to get rid of the complaints and for managers to show their management that they´re doing the "right" thing-involving their people in the decision-making process. The same game is played when leaders involve their direct reports supercially, soliciting their views on department strategy but relying exclusively on their views on department strategy but relying exclusively on thei own view. Cynicism becomes employees´ultimate response to this game, and they lose respect for management. Perhaps evens worse, when management really needs employees to be committed and contribuing to a major project, they have great difficulty securing this involvement.


Praise for Games at Work

jacopoA terrific read not only for senior leaders and executives but also for employees seeking growth in complex organizations. Goldstein and Read dissect the interpersonal dynamics that affect a company’s performance, provide a framework to understand the games that are commonly played in businesses around the world, and offer practical tools to correct these behaviors and improve the organization’s effectiveness.

Jacopo Bracco Executive Vice President DIRECTV Latin America

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