The News Letter Volume III. Number 3 - March 1, 2003.


Survival Skills at the Office or Just Because You Are Paranoid, It Doesn't Mean They Are Not Out to Get You

"Is working all the time unhealthy?" Your Boss says 'No' and orders you to agree by voting his response in a secret ballot. How do you vote- Yes or No? Responding to this question on-line, in the company of others will have you in the thick of an innovative, wireless, messaging game called Office-Politics. On the playing field of their website, The James Gang allows us to consider such issues in the deadliest place office politics can be played: a meeting.

Players get points by voting as told to in a secret ballot, when the boss opens their ballot. The problem is that a player who back stabs the boss by disagreeing gets double points while all the other players get nothing. One does not need a Ph.D in human psychology to guess what likely happens. An individual wins double points and becomes known as a back stabber. Afterwards, those suspected of back stabbing do not get their secret ballots opened; the suspected back stabber gets zero points. The game continues until someone else decides to go for it, and so on and so forth. As a way of making the game more bitter-sweet, players are allowed to falsely or truly accuse back stabbers. With sufficient points won from before, a player may dispatch a white knight to eliminate a back stabber to the advantage of extra game points for all. There is also a golden parachute that foils a back stabber for a game boss who is fortunate enough to have one.

The rules of OfficePolitics have recently been expanded due to a clandestine activity discovered in earlier play. Several enthusiasts contacted each other off line and made secret deals to rig the voting in one or more of several games they played in together. This allowed the scores of the voting cliques to leap ahead. The chicanery got thick enough to cut with a knife.

Now, rules of play recognize the inevitability of these alliances and actually allow players to win points by betting on other players, presumably, ones they think are in the voting cartels. Amassing the highest points total will catapult a player to the top as CEO. This brings bragging rights and a small but attractive prize.

For those who are concerned about the ethical implications of their game conduct and who want to share their views on the meaning of play in their actual lives, the website has the Ethics 101 corner. Emails to Professor John Burton of the Schulich School of Business, York University, receive responses of practical advice to players whose game experiences touch close to home. Players also may publish their views on the web site. Some of these responses are full of insight and self discovery. A player with the game name of REX writes-

I want to congratulate all of you on being the first group to turn simple voting alliances into a backhanded, cutthroat bloodbath. Can you possibly imagine what would happen if these tactics were used on you in the real world. Obviously they are, because I also read the Ethics 101 posts. Office Politics did an excellent thing here. They gave us the ammo and the temptation to do the "wrong" thing and this is the end result.

The dilemmas each day dealt with exactly what is transpiring now, and all of us, though we denied we would EVER rig the betting pool, cook the books, talk behind a co-workers back and "run errands" for the boss, have done exactly that. I for one played this game vowing to never stab or harm anyone's meeting in any way, but coming back, that changed. I was tempted, and this is the fallout, the ruin of a company that has lost all control. I have a nice score now, but as of today, my betting will not be with any alliance. I've learned a lesson here. One I already knew.

When players reflect on the dynamic of the game they begin to learn things- about the social systems of the work place, human behaviour and perhaps themselves.

The learning is not about committing rules to memory but rather reflecting, as Rex did, that his actions were not right. To do this requires self-awareness, regret and a sense of accountability. Ironically, learning about ethical conduct may best develop by simulating bad conduct and holding these 'playful actions' up to the light. OfficePolitics provides a platform for doing this. The insights of players, posted as threaded messages to be shared, creates a learning community for probing the implications of action in the on-line and real life game of office politics.

However, there is more to the story. I believe there is potential for creating learning that would be valuable to employers about their company's culture and environment. This learning is hard to come by because organizations tend to claim that 'politics' does not exist in their company. The difficulty is that the tacitly accepted behaviour in many organizations is for individuals to achieve success at the exclusion or the expense of others.

The James Gang found inspiration for Office-Politics from the scandals of Cinar Corp, Enron and WorldCom. The example of these organizations's public misbehavior suggests the possibility of similar breaches of ethics and good sense inside as well. What is tolerated within the corporate culture may quickly become unnoticed when perpetrated on the outside as well.

In a recent article, The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated, New Yorker Magazine, July 17, 2002, Malcolm Gladwell illuminates Enron's adherence to the narcissistic myth that natural ability takes precedence over results. This policy contributed to many of the cream-of-the-crop, rising-star employees, neither acknowledging error nor taking responsibility for their actions day-to-day. Gladwell cites research that supports the premise that if you are hired because management thinks you are a mensa candidate, you will likely cover up, blame others or out right lie about the mistakes you make. If they are paying you that much money, how can you admit they were wrong? Office politics, in the negative sense, becomes a survival strategy.

However, I believe the on-line Office-Politics game has a subtle, larger vision. It is not the existence of politics that is the problem. People in social groups will inevitably, seek to achieve their aims, form alliances and work to influence others. The problem is when the skills of politics are merely employed for narrow self interest and in secret. The on-line game provides a stage for acting out the worst and perhaps the best of a player's instincts. It also offers a context for examining make-believe consequences and, hopefully, drawing conclusions for conduct in the work place.

Rather than lecturing on ethics or merely posing brain-teaser ethical dilemmas, simulates the experience of lying, cheating and back stabbing. The learning depends on the interest and will of the players, but the learning, as experience, is concrete.

The idea I have been playing with is using the game as an in-house application to develop conversations on office politics, company culture and business ethics. This application might prove a valuable tool for senior management, particularly in sectors with a recent unenviable track record at building public confidence in the firm's integrity. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them with me.


Terry Walker
C. Terrence Walker Consulting
355 Hillsdale Avenue East
Toronto, Ontario
M4S 1T9

(416) 484-8739