Part One: Power Games

(Adapted from Secrets to Winning at Office Politics, by Marie G. McIntyre)
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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, & 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 Power Games

Power Game players are either trying to increase their leverage or flaunt the power they already have. Some players have malicious intentions, while others are merely self-centered. All Power Games are designed to give the player some type of advantage over other people.

A. The Suck Up Game

“I think you’re wonderful, so you have to like me.”

Suck Up players are always focused on pleasing the powerful. They shower managers with compliments, frequently request their guidance, and never openly disagree with them. Advanced players actively seek out opportunities to stroke the egos of important executives.

The Emotional Payoff: “I feel safe when people in power like me.”

Pitfalls for Players: (1) Colleagues generally think that Suck Up players are useless, so they seldom have good peer relationships. (2) When problems occur unexpectedly, managers can become quite unhappy with Suck Ups who concealed bad news. (3) If they acquire a manager who wants unfiltered opinions and honest feedback, Suck Up players are out of luck.

Countermoves: Countermoves are designed to break the pattern of a game, allowing you to get back on a more productive track. With Suck Up players, the game is generally more annoying than harmful. The biggest problem is that sucking up can prevent the sharing of information or opinions, so countermoves should focus on encouraging more candid discussion.

  • Solicit their opinions privately. To learn what Suck Ups really think, try talking to them one-on-one. They feel safer expressing opinions (assuming they have any) when management is not around.
  • “Out” them in meetings. If you know their true views, you may be able ask Suck Up players about them with appropriate questions. But don’t be malicious! If you try to make them look bad, then you are turning into a game player yourself.
  • Don’t become their opposite. Suck Up players are so compliant and accommodating that their colleagues can look downright cranky by contrast. Be sure that your own comments and suggestions are presented in a positive, helpful way.

The End of the Game: Suck Up Games end when the player either becomes more assertive and self confident or acquires a boss who hates Suck Ups.

B. The Control Game

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Control Game players resist direction or advice from others. Some are dominators, who enjoy telling people what to do. Others are resistors, who may have little desire to lead others, but strongly resent any outside influence over their own activities. And some combine both characteristics.

The Emotional Payoff:   “I get to do what I want to do.”

Pitfalls for Players: (1) Control Games often degenerate into useless power struggles that drain energy from more productive activities. Observers typically wonder why these silly people can’t just grow up and get along. (2) Someone usually loses. Playing a Control Game with your boss can be especially risky, because managers usually have more leverage by virtue of their position.

Countermoves: Control games can be adversarial and destructive, so countermoves should protect the target from possible harm. Here are some strategies to consider with a Control Game player:

  • Don’t get sucked into an overt power struggle. Responding with vengeful control moves of your own will just bring you down to their level and invite retaliation. You need to guard your territory, but remain focused on the work, so don’t trash your opponent or go for an obvious power grab.
  • Stand your ground. Insecure people often lose Control Games because they give in too easily. If someone is challenging you, you must establish appropriate boundaries and enforce them.
  • Fortify relationships with high-leverage allies. Because Control Games are all about power, you must make every effort to have people with a lot of leverage in your corner.
  • Directly address problems with the work. Instead of getting emotionally “hooked” by your opponent’s challenging behavior, keep your focus on work-related issues and desired results.
  • Go with the resistance. “Going with the resistance” is a time-tested strategy used by therapists, salespeople, and martial arts experts. Simply put, this means that when someone is pushing you, you don’t push back. But neither do you give in. You simply use their comments to move the discussion in a helpful direction. For example, if someone criticizes your ideas, don’t argue. Instead, say, “That’s an interesting point. I’ll keep it in mind.” or “Tell me what you would suggest.”

The End of the Game: A Control Game is over when the relationship stops feeling adversarial and people are working cooperatively. Or when the weaker player gives up.

C. The Shunning Game

“If you don’t fit in, we’re going to get you.”

Shunning is a group game that requires a target, who is punished for being different in some way. Targets gradually realize that they are being excluded from group gatherings and friendly office banter. Any conversation that they join breaks up rather quickly. Required communication is always cool and formal. But since no one will acknowledge that anything unusual is occurring, all attempts to discuss the problem are brushed aside.

The Emotional Payoff:   “We feel more powerful because we can punish people.”

Pitfalls for Players:  (1) Because it is a childish game, Shunning makes the players appear immature and small-minded. (2) Shunning creates powerful feelings of anger in the target, who may look for opportunities to retaliate. If the target ever acquires more power, Shunning players better watch out.

Countermoves: Countermoves to a Shunning game should focus on reducing the target’s isolation and gradually breaking down the group’s united front. Find other sources of support. Sometimes the target can simply join another group.

  • Divide and conquer. Often the target of a Shunning game can chip away at the hostile group dynamic by getting to know the friendlier members. Shunning players usually vary in their level of commitment to the game. Typically, one or two leaders are strongly invested in punishing the target, but other members may feel a bit guilty about being so mean. By developing a relationship with these more accessible players, the target may be able to short circuit the game.
  • Try to define the offensive behavior. Shunning targets often have no idea what they are doing wrong. Because no one will acknowledge the existence of a problem, they can’t fix it. By talking with accessible group members, the target can sometimes identify the cause of their colleagues’ resentment.
  • Change things that are reasonable. No one should be expected to become a clone of their colleagues. But if the issue is related to job performance or career goals, changing might be a good idea. One Shunning target learned that his constant talking was driving his colleagues away.  Now that’s a behavior he might want to work on.

The End of the Game: Shunning Games usually end in one of two ways: either the group offers the target at least minimal acceptance or the target leaves. Shunning is a brutal psychological weapon that can place almost unendurable stress on the victim. Most people cannot tolerate that kind of pressure for long. Nor should they.