Culture Matters

By on October 9, 2014

The games we play


As mother to a 6-year old, I spend a lot of time playing games with my child and his friends. Recently, I realized that the issues that get in the way of a game being fun for kids are the same issues that cause the “game” of work to be frustrating for adults.


They aren’t sure what winning looks like.
One of the first things my son wants to know about a new game is how to win it. We aren’t talking strategy here. He just wants to know at the most basic level what the point of the game is. Does he need to finish first, build the tallest tower, get the most points, or get the least points? As adults we are not much different. Whether building a business, leading a team, or simply trying to do our jobs, we need to know what the endgame is in order to play the game at all, let alone to play it well.

The challenge in the business world is that people get conflicting messages about the endgame. The traditional endgame – increasing profits and shareholder value at all costs – is no longer acceptable in its own right. Consumers (and enlightened business leaders) are beginning to demand that winning also involve treating employees well, giving back to the community, and preserving the environment. While these are great things to aspire to, it is stressful for the players because, despite the fact that they have been told that they need to play by the new rules of success, when push comes to shove the decisions that really run the organization are based on a very old set of rules based on competition, nepotism, self-interest and short-term payoffs.

Even if we set aside judgement of which game is a better, more fun, or more moral game to play, the fact remains that you can’t win unless you know which game you are playing. A bank that is playing to maximize profits is going to make different choices than a bank that is playing to grow the wellbeing of its customers and community. Regardless of which one of these you believe is a better game to play, the least fun and most confusing game would result from believing you were playing one game when you were really playing another. (Note: The most common version of this is the game of corporate politics where everyone is claiming to play for results when what they are really playing for is power, status, and saving face.)

The rules aren’t clear.
To play together effectively, players need to know the rules. Most children’s games can be explained verbally in 5 minutes or less. This makes it quick and easy for people of almost any ability to join in and perform competently from the start. Organizations, by contrast, are complex environments that require months, if not years for the players to truly understand the rules of engagement – even if they are written down.

Written policies and procedures are a good starting point for defining the rules of engagement in a business, but much more is required for people to play together effectively in the workplace. Policies and procedures provide some clarity on the rules for black and white situations at work, but the reality is that the most important decision-making in organizations falls in the grey area. For this reason doing defining and writing down the values and principles that govern the game is essential for new players to be able to join in and perform optimally. The absence of them sets the stage for hierarchical and highly political organizations.

In Japan, for example, expat workers commonly express frustration with the rejection of their ideas simply because they did not fit with “the Japanese way”. This “Japanese way” is not written in policy and procedure manuals because it is assumed that all Japanese know it. In increasingly multicultural workplaces it is essential to stop making assumptions that everyone knows the rules of the game and, more importantly, to stop assuming that the rules of the game can and should be defined by only one player (or one culture).

The rules get changed to suit personal interests and agendas
It is humorous to watch my son try to make new rules as the game progresses so that he can increase his likelihood of winning. It is also disturbing to watch him lie if he has broken the rules but thinks I haven’t seen him do it. Both of these things happen regularly in the workplace. Most people will claim to live by a role of honesty, but if their job, their raise, or their ego is in jeopardy the majority of these same people will bend the rules of honesty in their own favor.

The challenge (and the biggest frustration) with this type of rule bending is that most people who engage in this type of “cheating” will , just like my 6 year old son, insist (if called on it) that they have not cheated. The even scarier thing about this type of rule bending is that, just like a child who is not called on cheating in a game, the longer their rule bending goes unchecked, the more likely they are to convince themselves that their “adjustments” to the rules are legitimate.

The rules don’t align with the stated endgame.
Does your leadership talk about collaboration but reward competition? Do sales goals pit individuals against one another for top honors or do they galvanize the team around the achievement of group rewards? Is the importance of innovation preached about on one hand while taking time to explore ideas or experiment with new systems is criticized as a waste of time or a lack of focus on results? These are all examples of the rules not supporting the stated goals of the organization.

Most employees I coach are pretty good at spotting these inconsistencies, but not so good at knowing how to deal with them. What do you do? First of all take a deep breath. Recognize that you are being given mixed messages. Next, work from the assumption that the leaders don’t really get that they are contradicting themselves. Finally, take some time to think about how you can have a conversation with them that focuses on alternatives to the current rules that would be more supportive in achieving the desired endgame.

Your conversations might go something like this. “I know we have received training about being more creative and innovative, but as I have been criticized for taking time while at work to investigate new systems that I think will make things better, I am feeling a bit confused by what the rules are around how I am allowed to be more creative and innovative. Hopefully this will generate a discussion that will clarify the rules and parameters within which you are allowed to be creative or possibly even help your leaders to recognize that the rules of the game need to be shifted if they truly do want to foster innovation. Ideally approach them with a possible solution that would remove the inconsistency. If, for example, you belong to a sales team that is encouraged to collaborate but has a commission structure based on individual achievement, suggest that they implement a commission based on achievement of group sales goals.

If you are a leader, take some time to stop and think about what game you are you really playing. Is the stated mission and purpose of your organization in alignment with what gets prioritized in strategic planning, what gets rewarded in terms of performance, and how success and results are measured? Do the rules you require people to play by allow them to win? If, for example, your company has identified speed to market with new technology as one of your key differentiators, but you require endless red tape and multiple levels of sign off to approve capital expenditures that are required to speed the innovation process, then your rules are getting in the way of people winning the game. Take time to investigate why those levels of sign off and red tape are there, to question if they really need to be, and to devise ways to put the financial controls in the hands of your team to speed the creative process while still maintaining the appropriate levels of checks and balances.

Players quit when they realize they are not going to win.
As children we are taught not to be “sore losers” and quit when we realize we aren’t going to win, so most adults won’t quit their jobs when they get frustrated with the game at work. Unfortunately they quit in spirit by ceasing to care and doing the bare minimum required to get by. As a short term strategy to rest and recover from frustration this can be effective, but as a long term strategy it hurts your as much as it hurts the organization.

The game is designed to create more losers than winners.
If you think about it most games are designed this way. There is only one winner. Everyone else loses. The game in all too many workplaces follows a similar pattern. The higher up you are on the supervisory totem pole the more you get to win. The lower you are, the more you lose. In most organizations this places all front line staff – the majority of the company’s employees – in a losing position most if not all of the time.
The above issues point to some fundamental flaws in the way we have designed the games we play in both life and work. As adults, it is time that we stop following the rules if they don’t make sense. It is time to start asking questions if we are getting conflicting messages about how winning is defined. It is time that we start being honest about how and why we bend the rules in our own self-interest, and holding ourselves to a higher standard. It is time that we have the courage to leave a game that isn’t fun anymore, rather than stick around going through the motions. Most importantly, it is time that we stop being “good sports” about losing and put some effort into designing the game so that everyone can win.

If you want to know more about how you or your organization can participate in designing a new game, e-mail Andrea at Kyosei Consulting.

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates spiritual insight with top-tier leadership, wellness and sustainability consulting to help individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. She can be contacted through her website at