Are you a game-player or playing the game?
When was the last time you played a game, a real game like chess or backgammon, cards, or jenga?
Did you see any similarities between that and what you do every day at work?
First lets look at the definition of ‘game’ in this context :
"play games, to act in an evasive, deceitful, manipulative, or triflingmanner in dealing with others"
"Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. Games generally involve mental or physical stimulation, and often both. Many games help develop practical skills, serve as a form of exercise, or otherwise perform an educational, simulational, or psychological role.
"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." (Clark C. Abt)
Games can involve in a certain degree of chance. Games by their very nature imply skill, strategy, tactics and also suggest battle - that someone will come out down and worse off, the other the winner.
Most people don’t consider that their job entails a certain amount of game playing and tactics, and yet I have never known a job not to. There are always two ends to the spectrum, the see-saw exists.
Typically within a workplace, it’s a case often of interpreting the term ‘game playing’ as a negative one. A common view is that it means manipulation, or decisive behaviour; playing mind games to wrong foot those around them or to send people down a wild goose chase or unnecessary path. People equally associate being involved in ‘the politics’ of an environment as strongly associated to playing games. Again, politics is often seen in a negative light. By association when you ask people what they think game playing and politics mean in the workplace the same and very common words are used:
For teams and non C level executives, many individuals perceive that the games and politics of an environment is about not being straightforward, dishonest, mind-games, following own agendas, distraction techniques from the focus being on them, or arse-covering, to name but a few of the perceived traits - all negative and mostly because there are other deep factors at work that are actually driving these ideas and reactions. The way someone implicitly behaves and holds back information, or doesn’t share objectives or information to achieve their own gains, will spark doubt in those around them - even simple mistakes such as lack of transparency, leadership or good communication.
At the very root of what drives these beliefs is that the standard rules, outlined and agreed structures are in some way being changed by certain individuals (without others' knowledge) to achieve their own gains -and that this will/ or is already causing negative impact on the wider group.
On the flip side - those closer to the ‘games and politics’ understand that there are unique situations, delicate sensibilities and relationships that need to be handled, and dynamics across organisations that take careful management and finessing or pragmatism. They are not 'game-players' but instead they are 'playing the game'. A nuance perhaps but a vital one. It requires consideration, tactics, thinking through moves, how things are articulated, what order and how things should be framed. Being nimble and thinking fast is key. It requires taking responsibility for thoughts and actions, and leadership. Great Generals are strategists, game players and understand the implicit politics of one tactic versus another, they play the game, but not game players.! Foreseeing outcomes is often critical and being able to change direction rapidly is necessary to being able to achieve an objective or goal, adapting to the circumstances as they play out. It is absolutely about tactics, strategy and next steps, and often having to change the goal posts or direction of travel somewhat.
Ive heard people in the workplace claim or state that they 'don’t do politics’ or that ‘ Im not a game player!’ and Ive always questioned them on what makes them think that they don’t participate. Often their response is based around; ‘not understanding how to manage senior stakeholders, not being interested, not wanting to get distracted by politics and game playing, or even that they leave others to do that, and they don’t have the skills nor any interest in gaining them.’
You see its all about the order of those two words! some people think they are implicitly the same, but I would argue no. Don’t you think that whether you are in meetings, delivering projects, running and managing a team, making decisions e.g:on design, technology, trading, brand, comms, - every step of the way you need to consider cause and effect, possible outcomes, how you want people to respond to you or work with you.
By simply turning up you are playing and participating in some sort of ‘game’. Now I use the term ‘game' here in the loosest sense, in other words, a job could be seen as a game - you turn up each day, carry out a series of tasks that fit in to a wider picture and puzzle that allows other tasks, and hence colleagues to respond to and carry out linked activities - all driving towards a desired outcome. Even if you truly believe that you are not playing to others agendas, you are playing your own game at the very least - something is driving you in the job, financial needs like paying bills, your family, hobbies, holidays, learning and skills. All of these are part of a personal ‘game’ where you are actively participating in achieving something for a specific outcome. The decisions you make, the way you present yourself, the information you share and don’t share, the very nature of working with others requires you to consider their perspectives and collate and formulate your own responses. When you chose to share or not share, do or not do, stay late, leave early, submit that proposal, design that diagram, its all based on gathered information that is informing you to ultimately achieve a specific task or (long term) goal. You are making constant decisions on what happens next, you are playing the game, following the rules! That is called tasks, tactics and looking at the end goal (or game). Chess is about tactics, foresight and skills. Jenga focuses on keeping the structure strong, and also looking to force your opponents to make a mistake and topple the bricks - it perfectly plays both sides. Neither is without risk. Manoeuvrability is key, thinking 3 steps ahead at least is key.
Heres another example - when you are working in/ with a team - do you behave the same with everyone, or do you find out what makes them tick? Do you play to their strengths or weaknesses? Do you need to consider personalities around you - are they shy, loud, fast moving, or more hesitant, impatient? Are they super bright? Do they listen well? or maybe they are creative and visual? Are they mathematical, analytical? Every time you consider your approach, tone of voice and what you say, as well as your next steps. In how you approach someone or something that you are working with, all of these pieces of information feed in to what and how you behave with them and ultimately influence the end outcome. In this instance its behavioural tactics.
Those who fail or refuse to 'play the game' in a business context are really only limiting themselves and what they can achieve. The very nature of the phase ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’ is a good pointer. Being in the game suggests that you are putting yourself forward to be counted. That you are giving something a go, that you are standing up and taking a risk, or stretching yourself. Other interpretations suggest that you are taking accountability, responsibility and focusing on clear objectives to an end goal, committed and transparent!
It is granted that there are ‘game-players' everywhere, in the negative context. We've all worked with them and come across them - They exist - there is no question. They don’t follow through on actions, aren’t congruent with that they say and do, and yes, sometimes they are driving an agenda that suits their needs against the team or greater end goal. But they are usually spotted and its tough to get away with this kind of behaviour for long. Even if they do unravel themselves in this way, the knowledge you will learn and the tips you gain by not doing what they do, will serve you well.
Perhaps understanding different perspectives and that we all play our roles and participate, might prevent the otherwise limiting attitude that not 'playing the game' suggests and thus avoid any outcomes that you might experience, by stepping away and not putting yourself forward to be counted. Play the game. Don't let it play you!