Political maneuvering is part of the ebb and flow of office life, but games have a specific purpose. A truly malicious game will escalate office politics to an entirely different level. Here a few signs that a game is in progress:
- The player's actions have an identifiable and predictable pattern.
- The behavior has an emotional payoff. Political games are always played for emotional rewards.
- True motives are never stated. Players will try to give logical explanations for everything they do.
- Any attempt to change the game is resisted, because players don't want to lose the emotional payoff.
Common political games fall into three categories: Power Games, Ego Games, and Escape Games. Keep in mind that these popular pastimes are hardly limited to the workplace. We often play them with family and friends as well!
Common Escape Games
The purpose of an Escape Game is to avoid unpleasant consequences. In the two games described below, players are either actively trying to avoid blame or passively shirking responsibility.
The Scapegoat Game
"This problem was clearly your fault."
Scapegoat, which can be played by individuals or groups, involves an existing problem, a search for blame, and a target. In this game, the target is quickly determined to be the cause of the problem, with no exploration of other possibilities.
When Scapegoat is played between colleagues, their blame-shifting conversations can resemble a tennis match. Taken to a higher level, Scapegoat can be played by entire departments. If your boss is a chronic Scapegoat player, the game can be hazardous, because bosses are often able to punish people.
Occasionally, politically stupid Scapegoat players try to make their boss a target. These poor souls usually meet with an unfortunate end.
The Emotional Payoff: "If I'm not the cause of the problem, then I don't have to feel responsible, guilty, or foolish."
Pitfalls for Players:
(1) Resentful and angry Scapegoat targets will often try to return the favor when future problems arise. (2) Successful Scapegoating usually means that the real issues are never identified, so the problem continues to exist or will reoccur in the future.
In Scapegoat, countermoves are designed to deflect attention from the target, broaden the scope of the discussion, and determine the true source of the difficulty. If you have a boss who likes to play this game, you may have to divert significant energy to ongoing CYA activity.
Avoid getting into an argument. Because no one likes being blamed, Scapegoat discussions can turn into heated debates. Targets, who feel with some justification that they are being unfairly attacked, often respond in kind, turning the discussion into a free-for-all. This is not helpful.
Acknowledge the possibility of partial responsibility. To avoid appearing defensive, targets may volunteer to assume some portion of the responsibility. "My department did miss one deadline related to the product launch, but we probably need to review the completion dates at each step of the project. I'll gather some data on that and report back at the next meeting. There may be several factors that we need to consider on the next project."
Defend yourself subtly. Without firing back directly, try to incorporate a line of defense into your response: "We did decide to push the deadline back in order to get the customer survey data, since that seemed to be a key piece of information."
Broaden the scope of the discussion. Invite people to consider other possible causes of the problem: "Waiting for the survey data was one factor in the delay. What else might have made it difficult to meet the schedule?"
Get the facts. One of the best countermoves in Scapegoat is to have facts available that support your case or point to the real reason for the problem.
The End of the Game: When Scapegoat is a group pastime, the game ends when members decide to adopt more a more constructive method of problem solving. But if your boss likes to play Scapegoat, the game will only end when you get a new boss.
B. The Avoidance Game
"I don't want to do it, so I'm not going to do it."
Avoidance is really a one-person game with unfortunate side effects for anyone who depends on the player. The game is easy to spot: the player puts off unpleasant or difficult tasks until forced to confront them. Various excuses are used as delaying tactics. If your work depends on a chronic Avoidance player, you are doomed to frustration.
The Emotional Payoff: "I can reduce my anxiety by not thinking about an unpleasant task."
Pitfalls for Players: (1) Because they create real problems for their colleagues, Avoidance players alienate co-workers and create unnecessary enemies. (2) When their procrastination causes critical deadlines to be missed, these players often find themselves in hot water with important people.
Countermoves: In Avoidance, all countermoves are aimed at getting desired results without directly attacking the player. Although an attack might make you feel better, the result is likely to be even more procrastination.
Never leave the timeline open-ended. With an Avoidance player, you should always get a commitment to a specific date, even if you feel sure it will be missed. And you may want to build a delaying factor into your schedule.
Offer to help with the difficult part. If you can do part of the work for the player, you may speed things up: "Gerald, how about if I do a rough draft of the contract, then let you put the finishing touches on it ?" Although this strategy gives you more work, it also gives you more control.
Increase your leverage. Sometimes you need to escalate the issue, but without appearing to threaten: "I understand that you're really busy, Gerald, but since this is such a big sale, I'm going to have to let the CEO know that the final contract will be delayed."
Consider the power of copies. You never want to use the CC line on your emails to punish people, but sometimes a well-placed copy can help to heighten the awareness of a problem. When Avoiders see that their managers or other important people know about the situation, they often get moving. But be careful if the Avoidance player is your boss. Pointing out your manager's shortcomings to the higher-ups is a risky move.
The End of the Game: Avoiders never change, so you'll have to keep playing as long as they're in the picture