Part Two: Ego 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 Ego Games

All Ego Games are designed to make the player feel smarter, better, or more special than other people. Some games require a victim, while others just allow the players to puff themselves up a bit. Most Ego Game players are actually masking strong feelings of insecurity or inferiority.

A. The Superiority Game

“Aren’t you impressed with me?”

Words and actions of Superiority players send the clear message that they are important, unique, and indispensable. Hogging the conversation, bragging, and ignoring others’ needs are all Superiority moves. When their real life isn’t impressive enough, some dedicated players will actually fabricate stories. Superiority usually has only one player, who is simply in search of an audience. But when two players compete, a predictable and pointless “my dog’s bigger than your dog” pattern emerges.

The Emotional Payoff: “I can make others believe that I’m important and special.”

Pitfalls for Players: (1) Superiority behaviors are quite annoying to colleagues, who eventually just tune out these braggarts. (2) Because these maneuvers are rather transparent, Superiority players often come across as insecure – the exact opposite of the impression they are trying to create.

Countermoves: Because Superiority players are just trying to impress their audience, these games are usually more aggravating than destructive. If the player’s behavior begins to interfere with work, however, then it needs to stop.

  • Avoid getting hooked. Never, under any circumstances, try to top a Superiority player with a story of your own. This just leads to an endless cycle of one-upmanship.
  • Don’t reward annoying behavior. When you ignore self-promoting comments and attempts to control the conversation, these inappropriate behaviors will diminish.
  • Address problem behaviors directly. When a Superiority player is interfering with others’ performance or productivity, then you should ask them to stop the disruptive behavior.
  • Remember the motive. Anyone who tries this hard to look important doesn’t really feel that way. If you can remember that they are actually quite insecure beneath all that posturing, then you may feel more sympathetic.

The End of the Game: A Superiority Game is over when the player stops trying to impress you. Some people only play Superiority with new acquaintances and drop the pose once they get to know someone.

B. The Put-Down Game

“You’re obviously an idiot, so I must be brilliant.”

Put-Down Games require a player and at least one target. These players are pathetic little souls who can only feel good about themselves by making someone else feel stupid or inept. They specialize in sarcasm and criticism, making biting remarks that are unnecessary and hurtful.

The Emotional Payoff:  “By demonstrating my superiority over others, I can feel less inferior myself.”

Pitfalls for Players:  (1) Put-Down Games quickly produce resentful and angry adversaries. (2) With their constant belittling of others, these players actually appear insecure instead of superior.

Countermoves:  Because they are widely known as chronic complainers, Put-Down players are often politically impotent. But they are most unpleasant to be around, so avoiding them is a wise stress management strategy.

  • Don’t give them what they want. Watching you tremble is most rewarding to a Put-Down player, so maintain a self-confident appearance. Always respond calmly to any assaults. Or just give them a dismissive look and continue with what you were saying.
  • Minimize contact. Why set yourself up for target practice? You should only interact with these attackers when you have no other choice. If you are unfortunate enough to work for a Put-Down player, then just remember that it’s your boss who’s the moron, not you – and find another job as soon as possible.
  • Get other opinions. Never evaluate your own work by the reactions of a Put-Down player. Find some mentally healthy people who can provide a more balanced and rational view.

The End of the Game: This game only ends when one of you leaves. Put-Down specialists seldom change.

C. The In-Group Game

“You’d like to be one of us, but you can’t.”

An In-Group Game requires two separate and unequal groups. Everyone knows that one is more desirable and that membership is restricted, but no one is supposed to talk about it. Members of the In-Group usually share some identifiable characteristic.

Unlike Shunning players, In-Group members are not necessarily hostile to the out-group. They just enjoy being part of their special little clique. Communication between the two groups may be quite cordial and pleasant, but everyone knows that an invisible barrier exists (although members of the “in” clique will never publicly admit it).

The Emotional Payoff: “Being part of an exclusive group makes me feel special.”

Pitfalls for Players: (1) Resentment often festers beneath the friendly façade of out-group members, who may retaliate in some way. (2) Divided groups are as seldom as effective as cohesive groups, so the work usually suffers along with the relationships.

Countermoves: The purpose of breaking up an In-Group Game is not to disrupt In-Group relationships, but to make the whole group more inclusive.

  • Bring the issue into the open. The existence of cliques can often be delicately acknowledged by making observations. “Sometimes decisions seem to have been made before we get into the meeting.” Or “We always seem to be divided into two groups. Why is that?”
  • Build one-on-one relationships. Out-group members can safely initiate friendly individual relationships without taking on the whole In-Group at once. They may do this by asking for advice, requesting assistance, or just chatting about the weekend.
  • Suggest activities that either mix the groups or include all group members. Increased interaction often helps to break down cliques. As members become better acquainted, relationships will naturally develop. Strategies may include creating project teams with members from both groups or engaging in group social activities.

The End of the Game: The game is over when all members of the group can interact freely, without feeling that some “rule” is being violated. Unless the In-Group is really entrenched, this goal can usually be achieved.