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Games People Play: How to Derail Workplace Turf Wars

Huge leg kick throw upset businessman out of office. Giant foot fire dismiss unhappy man employee of work. Job dismissal concept. Flat vector illustration, cartoon character.

Some people withhold information on purpose. They say yes when they don’t mean it. They may even schedule meetings when key players can’t attend.

These people seem to care more about dominating the terrain they’ve decided is “theirs” than they care about collaborating to improve everyone’s success.

If you don’t play their game, they may treat you like a threat. Initially you may avoid confrontation and try to work around them. And when the last straw lands it is easy to lose your cool or, worse, start playing games in return. The thing to remember is that unchecked, these games destroy trust, decrease the flow of information, sever relationships, unplug empathy, and waste resources.

Recognizing how many people interpret work primarily through a competitive lens is the first step to understanding these behaviors without demonizing the game players. We must find a way to turn them into allies: playing tit for tat only escalates bad feeling. It is sweet to imagine a game player suddenly seeing the error of their ways, apologizing, and collaborating, but it’s just a fantasy. Nope: The best way to build collaborative narratives at work is to help game players decide for themselves to stop playing games and collaborate for their own reasons.

Offering them the chance to change their behavior without ever admitting there was a problem gets the best results. Understand that for them, collaboration can feel like a loss. Sharing information, listening to diverse points of view, and backing up to rethink goals makes them feel unfocused and/or weak. Yet when we refuse to respond in kind and give game players a second chance to play collaboratively, we make more progress than if we stay silent or retreat.

Here are three common examples of workplace games — and what to do in response:

The Occupation Game

Back when territory was a matter of geography, strategies to control and occupy an area were tangible. Today, competitive players seek to control less tangible “territory” like information, relationships, and communication channels. Controlling conversations, withholding information, and mocking empathy are common strategies. Deterred by warnings to back off, many of us disconnect rather than risk “invading” their territory to ask for collaboration.

How to Respond

Disrupt the game by sharing some of your own “territory” to prove that work needn’t be a battle. Creating new channels of communication that reveal a bigger picture to produces more innovative solutions. Tell a story about the harm of “winner takes all” reasoning. Show up even when you aren’t invited. And stay present and alert instead of shutting down or getting angry.

The Intimidation Game

When a competitive player is threatened by what you have to say, they try to convince you to shut up. They often blame “how” you communicated, when the truth is that they actually didn’t like “what” you said. If they can get you to feel responsible for their failure to listen, it keeps you busy on the wrong tasks. Some of the behaviors used to intimidate and silence others include loud throat clearing, raising eyebrows, or verbal attacks. Some game players invade your physical space or threaten harm to your status. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a terribly effective form of intimidation.

They may accuse you of being the one who is intimidating. This often happens in cases when male game players get emotionally triggered after women expose injustice.

How to Respond

Women who stay calm in the face of intimidation keep others calm as well. Developing the ability to hear/see/feel the threat while taking a deep breath and staying sane often flips the focus back on them and their bullying behavior.

When we persevere, we expose that most of these acts of intimidation are bluffs. So it’s key to speak up — and protect others who are being bullied.

The Invisible Walls Game

Competitive players often agree in public to collaborate only to buy time to set up roadblocks that keep people divided. Once they label you as an enemy, misdirection and disinformation seems justified. All it takes is a disdainful or mocking attitude to encourage others to also block efforts to collaborate. Impossible timelines, logistical impediments, and unwarranted barriers for participation keep their battle lines strong.

How to Respond

Once a competitive group characterizes decision-making as a prize to win rather than an opportunity to collaborate, they implement “control the narrative” campaigns to belittle the more complex strategies that blend multiple narratives into a new story. And yet we must avoid accusations of ill intent that escalate aggression. It may be necessary to go toe to toe for a bit to illustrate that you could fight, but you choose not to. If you suspect insincere agreements, your best strategy is to track progress and expose invisible walls before they do too much damage. Perseverance is vital.

Our ability to anticipate these games rather than being blindsided by them builds up a shared immunity to tactics like gaslighting and intimidation. There are many more kinds of games — filibuster, noncompliance, discrediting, shunning — that undermine collaboration every day.

The key is to encourage vibrant conversations about how this kind of game-playing harms relationships and results. Plan innovative experiments that demonstrate the successful results of collaboration. It is high time we stop undermining each other — and pay better attention to our shared safety and our shared goals. There’s strength in numbers, and grace and power in collaboration.

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