It is an unfortunate fact of corporate life that management is sometimes practiced as a series of games between the manager and the managed (with the odds stacked against the latter, of course). In this post I list some of the more common games I have witnessed over time. As with all games, it is useful to know the ground rules before proceeding. In this case it’s simple because there’s only one: the manager always wins. Now that the ground rule is set, let the games begin…
Two cents up: Some managers feel obliged to contribute to any and every discussion – even those involving topics they know nothing about. These gents (and ladies) are professional players of the game of Two Cents Up. The game is played as follows: contribute your two cents (or equivalent in any other currency) to all discussions. There is no limit on the number of turns, and at the end of the discussion you simply tot up your contributions to get your net score. In case it isn’t clear, only managers get a turn. Expert players of this game routinely end up with several dollars worth of pointless contributions.
Now I delegate; now I don’t: This is essentially a game of delegation peekaboo. The manager delegates responsibility to an employee then, a little while later, takes it back. Then, later still delegates again and so on. The game can be played through several such delegation-undelegation cycles, driving the subordinate to responsibility uncertainty: a state where the subordinate knows not what he or she is (or isn’t) responsible for. The best exponents of this game can ensure that nothing ever gets done because no one on the team (the manager included) knows who is responsible making decisions.
The second guess: This game is the favourite of managers who find it hard to delegate real responsibility to their subordinates. They delegate only when forced to (by their managers), but then constantly second guess decisions made by the delegatee. As per the Merriam-Webster definition of second-guess, the game can be played at two levels: a) criticise decisions when they are made and then b) criticise them again after the result of the decision is known. Two bites of the cherry! What more could a second-guesser want? No, no… don’t bother answering that.
My way: This is the management version of the well-known childrens’ adage: he who owns the ball, makes the rules. In the grown-ups game the manager insists on doing things his or her way, riding roughshod over his team’s opinions or advice. The best way to sum up this game is through the (edited) lyrics of the eponymous song:
I’ll plan each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
We’ll do it my way.
A more cut-throat version of the game is called my way or the highway – a cliche that nicely sums up what happens to those who choose not to follow the leader.
Bolt from the blue: This game is invoked by some managers when their opinion is challenged by an employee with a well thought out, irrefutable case. Just when the employee reckons the manager is about to concede, the manager invokes a bolt from the blue: a statement that has no relevance to the discussion, but serves as an effective distractor to confuse his opponent (sorry, I mean, employee). Here’s an almost true example from real life:
Ben - “So, from the evaluation, I think we can safely conclude that Oracle is a better than option SQL Server for this project.”
Manager - “May be so, but have you considered using SOA…”
This non sequitur usually results in game, set and match to the manager.
Leap of logic: This game is an insidious variant of the previous one. Like the bolt from the blue, the leap of logic is aimed at distracting the employee. However, it is harder to tackle a leap of logic because the argument isn’t as obviously unrelated to the discussion as the bolt from the blue. Illustrating the leap of logic using the previous example, the manager’s response to Ben might be:
Manager - “Ah, but what about non-relational databases…”
Brilliant! Although the manager is ostensibly talking about databases, he is really spouting nonsense. Ben’s gobsmacked, and doesn’t know where to begin refuting the point.
Picking nits: This game is played when the manager wants to find fault with work done. It’s an axiom that nothing’s perfect, so one can always find things that haven’t been done right. Some managers are specialist nitpickers – expressing great creativity in finding so-called errors or problems with the work done. Like the first game described in this post, this one can be scored. too. The scoring works as follows: a point per nit picked. At the risk of stating the obvious: only the manager can score.
Although management games are common in corporate settings, they aren’t particular to the business world. Games such as these are played out everyday in organisations ranging from government bureaucracies to universities. I should caution my readers that the foregoing listing is far from comprehensive – it is but a small list of the more common games that one might encounter. No doubt, other games (and variants of the ones I’ve described) exist, and still more are being invented by creative managers. Please feel free to add in management games that you have come across – if they’re good you might even score a point or two.