Are you Playing the Game?

Are you baffled by why some people get promoted and others don’t?  Do people at work do things that seem to make no sense? Are you attributing bad decisions to stupidity or self-interest?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on.

If a situation makes no sense to you, you are probably missing a key peice of information.
— Darryl Rouse

All organizations have a game that’s being played.  If you don’t understand the game, you are at the mercy of those who do.  You are a pawn. This knowledge doesn’t make you Machiavellian or power hungry, it makes you aware.  Beware of people who think acknowledging the game is the same as being a “playing games”.  Don't play games, but you need to know what game is being played.

Once you understand the game you can decide whether or not you want to play.  Playing without understanding the game is like stepping into a football game with a ping pong paddle and no helmet.  

Here are some keys to understanding the game:

  1. How is the playing field set up? It’s important to know where the game is being played.  Is it in meetings? In the hallway? On the golf course?  I often hear people say things like “I’m not going because that meeting is a waste of my time.”  Often the meeting may not advance their tasks, but it’s key to advancing the game. By missing a meeting where key moves are made, in favor of completing tasks, you are designating yourself as a pawn.

  2. Who are the players? What roles are they playing? Knowing everyone’s role helps you navigate the game.  Separate and distinct job title, some people may play the role of bringing people together, some people are seeing the future, some people are influencers, and some people are pawns.  If you want to play the game, aligning with only pawns in probably a bad idea.

  3. What is the object of the game?  This is where people really get it wrong.  Although each organization differs, from what I’ve seen the object of the game is not kiss up to your boss, it’s not who can get the most tasks done and it’s not who holds the most knowledge.  It’s usually something along the lines of “who can get the best result and convince others that it was the best result.” This means that if you have ever said “No one understands the great things I’m doing”, you need to work on communicating in a way people can understand.  

  4. What are the power structures?  Each organization is slightly different in what builds power, but it’s usually things like control of resources and voice.  Check out these 2 books to learn about power: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer  Warning:  People who don’t understand Power will react negatively to seeing these books on your desk.  I was accused of being “Power hungry” when someone saw me reading a power book. The truth is that if you aren’t attuned to the power structures you are playing with your eyes closed.

Here are some things to look for in the game.

  1. Don’t complain about the game.  I had someone tell me “All hiring is online today. There’s nothing in the newspaper or walk in.” If you want to get a job, that’s the playing field.  You can decide whether you want to play or not, but complaining about it won’t change the game. Sure sometimes there’s a “game-changer” but the complainers aren’t game changers.

  2. Distorted views of the game.  People with distorted views of the game can disorient you because their moves are erratic.  The red flag is when they describe the game to you it sounds like a conspiracy theory. You have 2 options, either stay away from these people or at the very least hedge all bets with them.

How have you learned to play the game? We'd love to hear from you in the comments!