By Brian Moore
August 24, 2009
Even at the best companies, there's a certain amount of pointless balderdash that comes with the territory.
Meetings are held to weigh the merits of a decision that's already been made. A manager goes ape when a blameless underling delivers bad news about quarterly sales. The office slacker surfs the Web while 10 of her co-workers get the boot -- all because she caught the boss making a pass at an intern.
Call it a madhouse. Call it office politics. Call it the working life.
But a corporate consultant and a human resources executive put a different name on these and other morale-sapping maneuvers: They call them games, and say their effect on a workplace is "insidious."
"Games are manipulative behaviors that people use to gain advantage over others," says Mauricio Goldstein, a consultant to corporations around the world.
In the new book "Games at Work: How to Recognize & Reduce Office Politics," Goldstein and co-author Philip Read identify almost two-dozen annoying, obnoxious and dismal behaviors that amount to nothing more than games adults play at work. Everyone knows about them -- they're present even at the best companies -- but seldom do workers call a spade a spade, or even realize they're taking part.
"People will say, 'I think there's a lot of politics going on,' but they can't really put their finger on what it is,'" says Read, a human resources vet who's worked for a number of Fortune 100 firms: "They'll single out one or two people they think are political."
The games are so widespread that tribesmen in Borneo will lift their spears in acknowledgement of their universality. Goldstein and Read have identified three categories of games -- interpersonal, leadership and budget -- that often turn workplaces into a cross between an episode of "Survivor" and a grade-school recess. You may not have put names to them, but you've no doubt encountered at least a few of these.
Person to person
The most common games are in the "interpersonal" category -- those played between co-workers or that workers play with their bosses. Some favorites:
* The boss said: A common game that has its roots in "Mom said," wherein participants invoke a higher authority to add weight to their exhortations. As in, "The boss said he prefers you work sales in Arkansas while I suffer the indignities of our Hawaiian territory."
It doesn't matter if the boss actually said it or not, since the goal is to quash dissent, says Goldstein: "Let's not discuss it. Just do it."
* Big Splash Career Hopper: Everyone knows this superstar beloved by management, who greases the skids for promotion by proposing big changes, then is promoted before the damage is apparent.
The Hopper can be responsible for everything from acquiring the Midwestern company with the previously unnoticed $50 billion in asbestos liabilities to the purchase of 2 + 2 = 454,234.pi accounting software for a small department. There's one constant, though: The Hopper is never left holding the bag.
* The Blame Game: Another oldie but goodie honed to perfection in schoolyards the blame game is handy when "You don't want to take responsibility for your actions, so you blame somebody else," says Goldstein.
Common among those in leadership positions, it's often used to explain reduced bonuses, broken promises and poor performance: "I'd make you head of IT if only the cavemen in HR knew what the hell they were doing."
* Copy: The Copy game is when people use the cc on e-mails where it's "outside the need to know or the need to inform," says Read. Anyone who's gotten an e-mail -- cc'd to the boss -- about her obligations to the August numbers has been roped into a game of Copy.
* The Pre-Deal: Players of this one turn meetings into Kabuki theater by pretending there's going to be a considered discussion of a decision -- except that the decision has already been made. Their goal: to create the illusion that they're interested in somebody else's opinion, allowing them to "avoid the dialogue and the anxiety that you need to deal with when you don't know what you're going to get," says Goldstein.
* Gotcha: Straight out of elementary school, this one involves scoring points for highlighting others' mistakes. While a typical move is telling the boss about errors in someone's report, Gotcha players often dream of the game's hat trick: pointing out that Jeff in sales lost his division's biggest account because he was having an affair with his litigious secretary.
* Marginalize: Taking a cue from high school cliques, this game involves freezing out colleagues who are considered a threat, because they challenge the status quo, or are a boss' favorite, or just don't fit in for various reasons. It's often played in a passive-aggressive way: e.g., someone is "accidentally" left off a distribution list or otherwise cut out of the loop, or left out of social gatherings.
To add insult to injury, victims are often informed after the fact about being ostracized: "We really tore it up over drinks last night, didn't we, Bob? Oh yeah -- you were in a meeting when we left. Maybe next time!"
From the top down
While interpersonal games flow horizontally and upstream, the doo-doo rolls downhill in leadership games. For instance:
* Kill the Messenger: An ancient game that seems never to go out of fashion, in which a put-upon underling delivering bad news he's not personally responsible for feels the full gale of the boss' wrath.
Though the messenger suffers from broken eardrums, broken self-esteem and broken bones from the Russell Crowe-like hurling of office supplies, the boss is the ultimate victim.
"The problem is information is suppressed," says Read, inhibiting the tyrant's ability to make informed decisions.
* Gray Zone: A Gray Zone game exits when players go out of their way to create ambiguity about who's responsible for what. The goal: to avoid being held accountable. When there isn't a clear line of responsibility over certain areas of a business roles aren't defined, which allows people to pass the buck, much in the way a father tells his kids, "Ask your mother."
* The Window Watcher: This game involves putting useless or unwanted employees in non-jobs where they appear to be contributing something, but in reality do nothing of substance -- perhaps being shunted to a "special project" that involves little besides fingernails, an emery board and long sighs.
Bosses often play the Window Watcher game as a weak-kneed substitute for firing people, possibly to avoid an unpleasant interpersonal issue, or so they don't have to pay severance. What it amounts to "is you're killing the person slowly, psychologically," Goldstein says, often forcing them to quit.
Sticking it to the man
The third category of office gamesmanship is budget games, which pit workers and management against the company. They include "Sandbagging," where folks purposefully lowball sales projections as a "negotiating ploy" with higher-ups, and "Slush Fund," where people insert bogus "special funds" into departmental budgets to give them wiggle room if their assumptions about the coming year aren't correct.
What all these games have in common is they're controlling, recurring, reproductive and ultimately self-sabotaging, the authors say. And they're self-perpetuating, thanks to a monkey-see, monkey-do quality of corporate gamesmanship.
"It has a viral aspect to it," Goldstein says. "If you see that it works, then you start using it, too."
By identifying the games and their nature, he and Read hope to help people break the cycle.
Of course, solving the problem may be easier said than done, since the common thread winding its way through the many interviews they conducted for the book was a lack of self-awareness. People didn't admit to games they themselves played.
"All the stories we got are people telling us about games that other people have played," says Read.
Except for one.
"There's an awful lot of people playing the victim game," he says. " 'I can't do anything about the game because it comes from the top.'"
As the "Games at Work" authors formulated their book, one office pundit kept coming to mind: Scott Adams, who lampoons corporate life in the fabled comic strip Dilbert."
"These cartoons often derive their humor from the counter-productive games people play in the workplace," they write.
It helped catalyze the book. Goldstein adds, though, that their goal was to go a step further.
"He makes people laugh, but you don't do anything with the laughter," he says. Their question: "Can we take the laughter and transfer it into a different way of operating?"