(Complex) Games People Play

I think I was probably thirteen when I first read Eric Berne’s book, ‘Games People Play’. Which, when I think back is a borderline weird thing for a thirteen year-old to be reading. I’m not how much I got out of it at the time, except, safe to say, enough for me to have periodically re-visited it ever since. Especially, this century, when I encounter the monster that is Transactional Analysis and need to remind myself of the dangerous propensity of cults to corrupt the original message.

The main point I took from Games People Play was that there are basically two ways if getting someone to do what you need them to do. The first way is for you to act as a  ‘Parent’ and to treat the person you’re talking to as a ‘Child’. The second involves both of you behaving as ‘Adults’.

In a traditional hierarchical work situation, the modus operandi is typically Parent-Child, with ‘the boss’ acting as the instruction-giving, carrot-and-stick bearing Parent and the long-suffering underling serving as the recalcitrant, unruly Child. If nothing else, this approach is deemed to be efficient. So long, of course, we discount the cost of the passive-aggressive resistance of the masses. Which, because its not easy measuring that kind of thing, the bloated, wilfully-blind bean-counters at the top of the hierarchy have conveniently been able to ignore.

In Complexity Landscape terms, this Parent-Child relationship is typically what we would expect to find in the ‘Efficiency Triangle’. A place where the innate complexities of the world and human relationships are stripped down to a list of ‘do that’ and ‘don’t do that’ instructions. Which, if the work you’re asking people to do is largely meaningless anyway (insert image of script-following call-centre workers here), probably makes sense. Especially, again, if all the Parents are measuring is number of rings before a call is answered and how many calls are handled per hour.

Having observed a host of different call centres ‘in operation’ over the years, I’m pretty certain that without the Parent-Child communication method, all the Children would play truant most days.

Humans, on the other hand – e.g. call-centre workers ten minutes after the end of their shift – tend away from the Simple and towards the Complex. Or, put another way, turn into anxiety-ridden yet high-functioning, autonomy-seeking adults.

Acknowledging the fact that humans are Complex means that the only sensible progress-making option is to adopt the other communication strategy. Treat people like adults and they will respond as adults. It’s not rocket science Part 387. Adult-Adult is the form of communication required if we want to operate our enterprises and teams in the Golden Triangle portion of the Complexity Landscape.

The Golden Triangle is a place built on transparency and trust. It’s a place where everyone understands there are crappy jobs that need to be done (‘clear your mess at the end of the day’), and that the best way to get them done is make sure everyone knows why tidy is good, shares the crappy load equitably, calls out freeloaders, and, perhaps most important of all, avoids the temptation to descend back into a Parent-Child world of stick-wielding tidy-police and increasingly resentful passive-aggression.