Psychological games. Spot them to stop them

You thought you were going to a simple catch-up meeting with your boss; instead you ended up feeling like a naughty child. Although the meeting started well, halfway through your boss became aggressive and critical. You’re still not even sure what the main problem was. However, you definitely know you’re in the bad books. This scene is typical of what happens during psychological game playing at work.

Games are interactions in which one person sets up another to experience negative emotions by the end of the conversation. Although this happens unconsciously, it creates a toxic dynamic between all parties involves. People who work in teams where game playing is the norm can be impacted at both emotional and psychological levels. This is why you need to know how to spot the early signs of game playing and take action to end the dysfunctional interaction pattern. Eric Berne’s model of interpersonal game playing can help you do this.

In 1964, Eric Berne published a book called Games People Play. This book is where the term ‘psychological game playing’ comes from. According to Berne, interpersonal games progress through four stages. By recognising when these stages are taking place, you can stop the game in its tracks. Here’s a quick overview of the four stages and how to spot them.


Stage 1: Baiting

The game is initiated with an opening hook or bait. This is designed to draw you into a dysfunctional pattern of communication. For example, your boss might say that you’re meeting to discuss project outcomes. This opening gambit does not trigger any alarm bells and so you move on to stage two.


Stage 2: Reaction

During the second stage of the game the bait is taken. You respond in a manner which allows the initiator of the game to continue the conversation. Accepting the boss’s invitation and preparing a project update in anticipation of the meeting is an example. After you have accepted the bait and provided a complementary reaction, the conversation may bounce backwards and forwards in a seemingly innocuous way. Then, however, a turning point is reached and the game moves to stage three.


Stage 3: Switch

The switch stage is characterised by confusion and a turning of the tables. During this stage the rules of the game seem to be totally unpredictable. For example, after discussing project milestones for five minutes, your boss introduces a totally new subject. The conversation unexpectedly focuses on a complaint made by a customer two weeks ago. Because this issue has been raised out of the blue you feel confused and defensive. You react by asking for evidence that the problem occurred. Your boss continues to turn the tables by accusing you of trying to cover up the incident. You’re upset because you don’t even recall the interaction that’s being referred to. The conversation continues in this way for ten minutes, during which the boss becomes more and more critical.


Stage 4: Payoff

In the final stage of the game, the initiator receives a psychological pay-off. Usually this involves observing the second party become uncomfortable, distressed, or upset. For example, you end up apologising for the incident, even though you still can’t remember it. Your boss now feels a one-up position and you feel humiliated.


About the author of these tips

Eleanor is a trusted coach to talented professionals in highly technical fields. She has taught more than 50,000 people how to excel professionally. Her passion is teaching high potential women to use social and emotional intelligence skills to gain success. Eleanor is qualified in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.