In 2006, Play your own game

2005

We all play games. Eric Berne, psychologist, founded the school of Transaction Analysis in the 1950's, as a means of gaining insight into the way in which people relate to each other. He argued that each person is made up of three alter ego states with which we deal with human interactions whether as agent, the person sending a message, or the respondent, who receives, and responds to, the message.

We may find our 'parent' - the consolidated external conditioning, learning, and attitudes gained when we were children from adults. It's a mode that is difficult to change, whether helpful or unhelpful to our happiness or other goals.

Equally ingrained is our 'child', that responds with emotion to our situation. It is only the 'adult' that can choose rationally, in so far as human kind is ever rational, what to do, how to act, how to keep the parent and child under control.

Berne sought to improve our understanding of ourselves, other people, and to better match our style of interaction with others. So, he suggested, make sure that if someone acts as a parent to a child, "the response must be child to parent or the transaction will be crossed" with breakdowns in communication likely.

It should be noted that no one approach is more or less effective in any given situation. Some people (Steve Jobs) get their way by having temper tantrums (child-to-parent); others (Alex Ferguson) by being dictatorial (parent-to-child) - although unsurprisingly, Berne advises adult-to-adult as the best way of communicating with a focus on moving others to an adult mode to allow rational discussion.

This is exactly what customer service representatives attempt to do when a customer appears irate (child-to-parent) by slowing the conversation down (parent-to-child) and then moving the conversation to an adult mode.

But there are several problems with such an approach.

First, you may not find anyone, or enough people, willing to play adult-to-adult on your way to your objective, whatever that may be. Second, you may tire of moving the transaction from learned and emotional to open and rational.

Third, you may wake up one day to the thought that you are trapped in some dystopian scenario worthy of Orwell, a web of codified bureaucracy that is closer to Parkinson's Laws than to Tom Peters' view of wow projects.

You could respond to this by playing the game better. You may learn to draw your gun, throw your knife, or write memo faster or nastier than the next hardball playing man or woman. You could, as so many before you, glean lessons from Machiavelli or Sun Tzu, or one of ten thousand self-help "rules of work" books.

In other words, you could accept the "basic stance of cynical realism about human society" and seek to get your slice of pie before the next pie-loving slicester. As Randall Collins put it in his conflict theory, "every individual maximizes his subjective status according to the resources available to him and to his rivals". And since these resources - whether prestige, power, or resources (including the size of our office, whether we drive an S-Class or an Accord, and what grade of hotel we get to stay in) - are limited, we're prepared to fight for them with violent coercion always a possibility.

The further we get from the zero sum game the healthier and more powerful we become

Alternatively, you may suspect that the game itself is at fault and that even to win is to lose, particularly when you find yourself locked within the nonsensical defensive routines where anything different (better is necessarily different) is undiscussable and the very undiscussability is undiscussable.

Complain too loudly, give into our 'child' and have the tantrum and we risk that Hollywood scene where the good guy blows his cool, ends up being labelled the deviant and locked up.

But do this and you risk ending up like the man in Beckett's 'Act Without Words' in which: "a man sits in the desert and struggles to reach a flask of water and other objects symbolising relief which remain stubbornly out of reach" and eventually learns that, "there is nothing to be done", that, "there is no escape from the playing area".

Or you could believe (for what else can you do?) that the game can be changed – but not the game that others play. That is the madness of the mythically-impossible task.

No, you could choose to play your own game outside of the rules, the conventions, and even the playing area which bind others. How far outside is another choice to be made.

The further we get from the zero sum game the healthier and more powerful we become. We act. We make our own history. We win our own battles. We become by degrees inscrutable and seekers of our own happiness by our own methods.

Work outside and be happier. Help people and be happier. Leave the tactics and the battles for greater glory and the greatest prize. Is not the best test of intelligence the level of happiness you achieve? If you play your own game, you win more often. No one will fight you for it because they won't know the rules or value a prize that is custom built for you, by you.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Wow... Can't remember when, if ever, something on the web struck such a chord. I know that sounds stupid or soft but really, man, no more politics. Just me keeping score of my own game of one... maybe 2006 will be better than I thought. I get sick of the games, I don't seem to win the big ones, someone else always gets there first while I was concentrating on what I was told was the job and then someone gets the inside track or reorganises the company or something! Nuff said but thanks.

Ray Simmonds Houston

Why didn't you tackle something really important - like 'How To Play An Away Day?' or '5 Ways To Improve Annual Appraisals?' or even 'How To Pass Your CIPD Exams?'... Just kidding ;)

Darla Reynolds Cambridge

Your own game is all very well but what happens when you want to win a game by taking other people with you? How do I get my idea used? Any ideas? As pragmatic as possible please.

Kevin Toole Stoke

Great article and the simple truth is that stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed comes mainly from a sense of being without power; power to act or even decide on what is important for oneself. Playing your own game relieves a lot of that stress and ultimately will produce a better, and more creative, result.

Bob Jenkin Surrey