Game playing in work and relationships

The games people play at work came up in a leadership coaching session with one of my clients recently. “Everyone likes a bit of a game”, he said. “I don’t”, I replied, then paused to reflect how many games in reality I do enter into knowingly or unknowingly. I may not like them - I don’t like feeling I’ve been manipulated into a situation - but I still find myself jumping into them occasionally before I’ve had a chance to spot them. It takes (at least) two to play a game after all.

What is a game?

Games, at work or in personal life, are where one person says one thing but means another, triggering a reaction in the other person that then leads to a predictable payoff where the second person ends up feeling dissatisfied, while the first person is having their needs met. In transactional analysis, this is known as an “I’m OK/You’re not OK” position.

One of the most common games of this kind is the “Yes, but…” game. One player, eager to get things done, keeps serving up actions and solutions, while the other player keeps batting them off with reasons why they can’t be done. It may look like the “Yes, but” player is asking for help, but what they are really looking for is reinforcement of their belief that they can’t be helped and that no one can control them. The other player eventually gives up, ending up frustrated and, depending on the behaviours they’ve learnt as a child, perhaps even feeling that they have failed or are not a good problem solver or friend. When this happens, the “Yes, but” player goes away satisfied that, as they knew all along, no one can help them, even though they remain passive and unwilling to be helped.

Games and transactional analysis

Eric Berne developed the theory in the 1950s. He believed that verbal communication, particularly face to face, is at the centre of human social relationships and psychoanalysis. When two people start to communicate, the default transaction is usually: “I do something to you, and you do something back”. However, only about 8% of our communication is through words, the rest is through, tone, body language and facial expressions. Berne observed that whenever we say one thing (the social message - in the example above, the person “asking for help”) and mean another (the psychological massage, or “stroke” - in the example above “I can’t be helped”), it’s always the psychological message that gets heard.

Parent, Child, Adult communication styles

The central point of transactional analysis is that by default we fall into one of these three states when we communicate with others: Parent, Child, or Adult. How we are feeling at the time determines which of them we use, and at any time something can trigger a shift from one to another.

Parent is our “taught” concept of life, formed by influences that we absorb during childhood. It’s the voice of authority and “do’s and don’ts”, behaviour and attitudes we’ve learnt and copied from parents, teachers, and other figures we’ve looked up to. When you channel the nurturing or structuring aspects of this state, it can have a positive effect. It’s the spoiling or controlling elements that are less helpful.    

Child is our “felt” concept of life, the emotional and sensory response to external events, where our internal feelings dominate reason. When we find it hard to control our emotions, this is the Child in us in control. Calling on the fun and creative aspects of this state brings some welcome lighthearted relief at times though!   

It’s hard to change ingrained Parent and Child states, we can only do so through the third, Adult state. This is our “thought” concept of life. It’s the Adult which gives us our ability to think and determine action for ourselves, based on what we know and have learnt. We start to shape our Adult concepts from as young as ten months old, and it’s how we keep our Parent and Child states under control.

We’re at our most effective when we’re in Adult mode. We all stray into our Parent or Child states occasionally, the trick is to be able to spot when we do, assess how useful it is to the situation, and call on our Adult resources to moderate as necessary. Berne’s theory is that for communication to be at its most effective, the interaction must be complementary - i.e. from Parent to Child or vice versa. If you’re aware of when someone else is triggering a Parent or Child reaction that’s not complementing your current state, and you can bring the situation round to an Adult / Adult interaction, you’ll both be winning the game!

The OK corral

With transactional analysis, Berne put forward the principle that we are all born “OK” - i.e. with good attributes. Frank Ernst took this further into the four “life positions” of the OK matrix. According to him, all our interactions fall into four categories, depending on how we are feeling and how we make the other person feel:

I'm OK - You're OK

This is the ideal Adult / Adult position, where both people are interacting at the same level. People in this position are comfortable with other people and with themselves, and are confident enough to get on with other people even when there are points of disagreement.

I'm OK - You're not OK

People in authority, such as managers and parents often fall into this position (Parent mode), assuming that they are superior in some way, which by default makes the other person in the interaction “not ok”. This position is often associated with perfectionists and judgemental people, whose need for things to be perfect and done their way highlights the limitations of the other person.

I'm not OK - You're OK

The person who starts off thinking they are “not ok” makes themselves inferior to others (although they might feel it’s the other person making them feel like that). People in this position will put others before themselves and have low self-esteem. They are often strong “people pleasers” who have learnt this position from being belittled as a child, perhaps by teachers or dominant parents, or bullying peers. Think about how this relates to the Child state above.

I'm not OK - You're not OK

Clearly not a happy position to be in, this is where people who are not feeling good about themselves project those feelings onto others in an attempt to feel better about themselves. However, the end result is usually that both parties end up feeling bad. It could come about when relationships with dominant others don’t evolve into productive Adult / Adult interactions, perhaps because of bullying or betrayal, and as a result feelings about those people become generalised to all people.  

How can we use this in our work, and personal relationships?

Understanding how you, and others, reach the OK position is the key to successful communication. When positions don’t fit, particularly when both people are 'I'm OK/You're not OK', it causes confusion or conflict. Another one to watch out for is when relationships seem stable, but are not constructive, because the opposite “not OK” in each position is cancelling the other out. This is where one person has the “I’m OK/You’re not OK” position and the other is “I’m not OK/You’re OK”. Both gain some comfort from this, but it’s not a healthy state to be in.

Remember that people use games to satisfy their psychological “strokes” and confirm their beliefs (mostly wrongly held ones) about life. If you can learn to read how others frame their OK position and also how you respond to this, so that you can bring the situation round to you both being in the “I’m OK” zone, that’s when you’ll be able to achieve the best results from your team and how you communicate. You can do the same in your personal relationships too! For it to work, you’re inviting the other party to join in with your more productive game, and rejecting any advances to join in with theirs, if they don’t share the same positive intent. Over time and with thought, you learn to spot the recurring patterns and predictable events that keep happening, and you realise that you can choose a different outcome, with less tiresome results.

What are the most common games you enter into? How can you turn them into an “I’m OK/You’re OK” position?