How the games we play can
help us through tough times.
When I asked George, a fairly new manager, about his work, he hesitated. Then he said, “Objectively, it’s going really well. But I don’t know how long I can stand it.”
The good news was that, after two years of building collaboration and creating expertise, George’s team was exceeding all its goals and had been recognized as a shining “center of excellence” within the large organization.
But now leaders in other divisions were trying to steal some of the glory and resources. They were attempting to poach George’s critical experts by having them reassigned away to other challenges.
When I asked George how many team members he’d actually lost, he said, “None. But I’m so exhausted from the constant fight to protect them that I’m not sure if I can keep this up. The stress is just too much.”
I thought about how much George loves board games and recalled a party where he and friends had played fiercely for hours. The intense players shouted and mocked each other. But at the end of the game they simply laughed about the competition and rejoined the festivities.
I asked George whether he could take a step back from the challenges to his team, and view his colleagues more like other players in a strategic game. George realized that he was finding the battles at work to be tiring because they had begun to feel too personal. It felt like a slap to his face when other managers responded to his success by threatening the important program he had built so carefully.
George resolved to start taking office politics more lightly. He would remind himself that decisions impacting his program reflected complex patterns, and seldom were about him. He became more adept at quickly disengaging from daily skirmishes and regularly refocusing on his bigger goals. As he concentrated on keeping perspective, George found work to be fun again, and less stressful.
A game involves goals, challenges, rules and often interaction with other players. If you’re struggling to understand a problem at work, try approaching it as a game:
- Define the game. If a workplace issue feels like a confusing mess, look at it in a different way by framing it as a game you must learn to play. Ask yourself: What are my goals? What moves will take me in that direction? Who are the other players? What are the consequences of each type of move?
- You can play more than one game. “Paul” felt torn. His ultimate career goal was to get a prestigious government job. But it felt like he was cheating his employer when he shifted his focus from current responsibilities to building his profile in broader circles. He said, “my career took off when I finally realized that you can play two games at the same time. Every morning I not only thought about how to excel at my day job, but also visualized how to prepare for my dream job. That additional focus and drive made me a better employee at the same time it opened doors for the future.”
- Understand others’ games. In your workplace you are seldom in direct competition with your colleagues. It’s like you are playing your games, and they are playing theirs, and you occasionally bump into each other on the field. The best players try to understand their colleagues’ goals and look for ways to offer help. Collaboration happens when you see how your goals overlap and find ways to play together.
- Make work more fun. If work feels boring, think up a game that will make it more interesting. Challenge yourself to do something faster, better, or in a different way. Set a goal that involves learning a new skill, varying your habits or broadening your network. As you find ways to make your tasks more interesting and enjoyable, you’ll become more productive.
If you think about your career as a very long-term game, you’ll be less likely to become bogged down in this week’s problems. Regularly ask yourself where you’d like to be a few years down the road, and look for ways to get the skills and resources that will help you get there.