Games in the Workplace

By Brad Thomason, CPA


The word “game” is something of an unfortunate term.  First off, it has more than one meaning, so you have to be pretty sharp on context sometimes to discern exactly which form is being used.  Beyond that, the most common usage brings to mind something which is a lot more benign than what is often being discussed.

Apart from being an activity engaged in for fun (usually by kids), games take on decidedly more serious forms in the workplace.

You have probably heard of Game Theory, even if you don’t know exactly what it is.  In a world that is fascinated with exaggerative language, Game Theory is more than a mere consultant’s term: it really is a complicated thing applied to matters of great import.  Nuclear arms races, organized crime activities and the machinations of corporations large and small all come to mind.

Game Theory deals with the proposition of making a decision in the midst of a situation where someone else gets to respond to whatever the decision is.  When speaking on this topic I always use the example of throwing a punch.  Throwing a punch at a wall is not Game Theory (it’s Decision Theory).  Throwing a punch at a cop is Game Theory.  Both involve an assessment of possible outcomes and a weighing of benefits versus costs.  But they are fundamentally different in that walls do not hit back, press charges, file lawsuits, etc.  The prospect of myriad reactions to your initial decision to throw the punch is what kicks it up into Game Theory territory.  The prospect of myriad possible reactions is also what makes it so important to be deliberative with decisions and the actions that follow.

Another usage of the word game in the business world is the one used by psychologists.  In that lexicon, a game is any exchange between two persons in which there is some sort of hidden agenda.  This need not be insidious; it might not even be conscious.  But there is something to the exchange that is more than it appears to be on the surface.

I’m reminded of the story of the sales manager who called her top salesman to arrange a breakfast meeting ahead of a presentation to a big client later that morning.  Let’s get together to compare notes and coordinate our efforts, she said.  No problem, he replied.  The salesmen knew that his numbers were the best in the region though, and in addition to the advertised purpose of the meeting, he was expecting some effusive compliments at the least, maybe even some sort of bonus.  The sales manager on the other hand was planning to use the otherwise cordial atmosphere to broach with the salesman the need to be more attentive to watching the collection rate of his customers, which were among the longest in the company.  Both diners (breakfast-ers?…) had an extra, unspoken agenda.  Neither ended up having a very pleasant breakfast.  The expectations of both parties went unmet, partly because neither party knew which expectations the other was bringing to the table, in the first place.

We are surrounded by games all the time in the workplace.  Being able to recognize them for what they are and avoid the pitfall of thinking that “game” implies something trivial or unimportant, is key to navigating the difficult terrain of the modern business world.

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