Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Workplace communication – teams, games and sport.

I’ve been reading Susan Haden Elgin’s “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work”, (Prentice-Hall 2000) not an easy read, but very interesting.

Elgin is writing about business communication and mentions the fact that dominant adult males control most of the power in America and that many of us spend large amounts of time interacting with dominant adult males. (I have no reason to think things have changed since 2000 or are significantly different in Australia.) She explains that “… most American men today define anything that involves negotiation as a game, at least temporarily, and they switch to gameplaying behaviour for the duration of the negotiation.”

She states that women, other nationalities and different ethnic groups don’t always agree on the meaning of ‘negotiation’ or understand the terminology of gameplaying behaviour and that this leads to massive communication breakdowns in many business settings.

What is your experience at work? Certainly in the workplaces I’ve been in, gameplaying terminology is prevalent. Such comments as “The ball’s in your court”, “Are we all on the same team here?” “We’ll get some runs of the board with this one”, “Don’t waste the play”, “That meeting was a bit of a free for all” or “Good play”, are commonplace.

Often there are a lot of non-verbal signals too, with the action of passing a ball to others at a meeting to denote the next person to speak. There are visual gags and asides that leave the non-initiated perplexed, out of it and wondering what on earth is going on.

Sometimes it’s even more pronounced with the expectation that personnel will attend football, tennis and cricket matches and entertain clients at these venues on weekends and in the evening. If this fills you with dread or loathing, perhaps you and that particular workplace aren’t entirely suited.

I want to make three points relating to games, sports and teams.

Firstly: What does the word game mean to you? Is it something light-hearted and perhaps trivial? Did you love sport at school? Or was it a time of purgatory? Does it matter one way or the other if you win or lose? How do you view the language of games?

Are games to be taken seriously, to be won, do they mean something to you? If they do to everyone but you in the office, what will the effect be? If you’re not speaking the same language, how does this affect your workplace dynamics?

If we don’t understand or relate to the language that is being used, where does that leave us?

Secondly:  How do significant people at your workplace use game playing terminology? Does it pepper their speech? Are you talking the same language? Do you know how they view games? Do they love team sports or do they prefer non-team sports? How does a boss’s love of sport, the fact that he or she takes sport extremely seriously affect everyday work interactions and negotiations?
Do you like being part of a group or team?
Thirdly: How do you view team sports?
I listened to an interview a while ago where two groups were debating the benefit of team sports at school. They were rational adults, full of goodwill and respect for the ‘opposition’, but it was glaringly obvious that they simply couldn’t (not wouldn’t but couldn’t) understand the perspective of the other side.

Those in favour of team sport were adamant about the many benefits of belonging to a team that weren’t easily achievable elsewhere. They talked about the pleasure of belonging, being part of a team (that word again) working towards achieving something together, of having a goal, focus, discipline and purpose. They revelled in the joy of winning! Their entire lives, on field and off, were viewed in a sporting context.

Those against spoke about the pain of not being chosen, of being reluctantly included when the Phys Ed teacher insisted, of being clumsy, not fitting in and of being perplexed about the rules, confused and uncomfortable. They remembered doing anything to get out of dreaded sport at school, forging notes, faking illness - anything to avoid the humiliation of participating. I think it is fair to say they abhorred sport and everything to do with it.

Neither side understood the others perspective, they weren’t being difficult, there was simply a deep gulf separating them.

How do these perceptions, prejudices and beliefs about teams carry into the workplace where sporting terminology and game playing is prevalent? If you hated sport at school, how does that affect you in a workplace? How does your disinterest and lack on knowledge affect the sport lovers?

What do the words team sports mean to you? What images thoughts and feelings arise? “ Be a good sport” (and do something you don’t want to do) “It’s not winning, but how you play the game”, “Don’t be a sore loser”, “This game is for the boys, we don’t want sissies here”, “It’s a bit of a boy’s club here”, “Can’t take the rough and tumble?” (said in a derisive tone)
You might like sport but prefer to work alone.
If you don’t like games and have residual negative feelings regarding team sports, could this affect your body language when the terminology is used in a work setting? How does this affect others?

Like Elgin, I firmly believe effective workplace communication matters. When the terms are unfamiliar and come from the world of sport and games, which not everyone is familiar with, mis-communication can and will take place. Expectations about roles can, as Elgin says, lead to outright confusion and clashes; there will be hurt, baffled and angry people. Unlike her, my experience is that both men and women can be alienated by game terminology - personality type is more relevant than a division along gender lines.

It’s a bit like being in a foreign country for those who aren’t natural games people. They don’t understand the terminology. At best, they may watch and listen with curiosity, but it’s a closed book, which needs courteous, patient, respectful explanation.

Some turn tail and run when team sports are mentioned.
I believe it’s incumbent on both sides, whether male or female and of whatever nationality or ethnic group to work hard to communicate maturely and clearly in terms the other can relate to and understand.

I also believe it’s incumbent for all people involved to listen to any questions or confusion with your whole attention, without interruption or derisive, insulting comments.

It makes good business sense to get the best from the WHOLE workforce without alienating those who are not in the “in group”. It is simply good manners to try to communicate clearly and to work at it ‘till you succeed.

One last thought: If you don't understand team sports and games, does that necessarily make you a poor employee where gameplaying behaviour is prevalent? Is there a place for all personality types which makes for a richer work environment?



Anonymous said...

Thank God I am out of the work place now. I detest games of all types and I'm sure it showed when I was at work. However, I did my best to "play the game" and be a "team player" while I was there (20 years). Still, I'm sure there were times when others could sense my dread. Body language doesn't lie.

Jan Morrison said...

Hi Sue - thought I'd drop by here. I'll be back when I have more time to chat. As a Transactional Analyst - game theory is a major interest! That would be psychological games - no one wins those. And I like a rich and diverse approach to teams - everyone has something to offer, even the resistors! said...

The term "game playing" as it relates to the workplace makes me cringe. I think about non-athletic games, verbal and/or non-verbal passive-aggressive, manipulative, controlling, etc. games that are rampant in the social services. Any application of "gaming", actually, makes me cringe - unless we're talking Scrabble.

sue said...

Delores, I think those of us who don't relate to games etc can and do fit in, even though it may be difficult. Like you I'm sure there've been many times when my body language showed my discomfort when the insistence of working as one got overwhelming.

Jan, ergh, those psychological games are dreadful, and lead to so much loss of confidence and sorrow. Not good for anyone. Sometimes I think the resistors are most valuable as they have such a different perspective. I'd love to sit and have a chin wag with you sometime.

Robyn, cringeworthy indeed, and not confined to any one sector. Too much damage is done to good people who for some reason don't fit the mould. Some workplaces can be vicious and unforgiving. hehe I've seen some not so friendly games of Scrabble too.

Betty Alark said...


I never have liked games - im not a game player.

To me games are designed to teach people how to play games on people-I think games play out on a subconcious level in a conscious reality.

I think the games created in our society are also designed to take humans away from the true nature of themselves. There's nothing wrong with games in and of themselves it all depends on the creator and the creators purpose.

Games can be fun and teach strategy - so I'm not condeming games - simply the purpose of games in general.

In the work place- its the same type of senario - the person playing the game and their purpose for playing it- not everyone likes to be a team player - not everyone see's themselves as being a part of the problem that prevents the solution from arising.

Solutions versus conflict can sometimes be boring to the person creating the chaos.

Me- I try to associate myself with people that don't play games in the work place or in life- I have much more peace of mind and contentment.

sue said...

Betty, the whole concept of game playing and teams seems to be so entrenched in our society that it's hard to disentangle the threads and work towards more wholesome, inclusive workplaces. Enjoy your weekend. Sue

sue said...

Betty, the whole concept of game playing and teams seems to be so entrenched in our society that it's hard to disentangle the threads and work towards more wholesome, inclusive workplaces. Enjoy your weekend. Sue