Snookered again? ‘Game playing’ in Transformation and Change Consulting

Change & Organisation Development

by Andrew Day

29 April, 2024

Client:  This is not how people feel.ʼ

Consultant: Iʼm not sure what you mean. This is what they told us.ʼ

Client: You spoke to the wrong people.ʼ

Consultant: ‘We spoke to the people you identified.ʼ

Client: I know this is not what people believe happened.  Your summary is skewed by a few individuals with vested interests to complain about management.  You donʼt make this clear.ʼ

Consultant: We have tried to set out what we were told as clearly and accurately as we could.ʼ

Client: You seem to be blaming management for the problems.ʼ

Consultant: We feel everyone is implicated and is struggling to hear each other.ʼ

Client: I disagree.  When people behave so unreasonably what can we do?’

This exchange took place between one of us and our client after we had shared with them feedback from their teams on a difficult and highly contested change to working practices.   At the end of it, we were left feeling misunderstood, somewhat bemused and criticised (after all we were only trying to help!).  Following the meeting we had indirect feedback that suggested our client was not happy with us, but it was not clear precisely why or in what way.

Tricky interactions, such as the above, are not uncommon in attempts to develop organisations.  To understand them, the two of us have spent the best part of a year inquiring into the dynamics of our relationships with clients.

Through this process, we have become aware of the prevalence of what the field of Transactional Analysis calls ‘game playing’. These are relational exchanges that communicate both conscious and unconscious messages that are intended to avoid difficulties and pain. They often lead however to unhealthy outcomes for both the organisation and the individuals involved.

In change processes, ‘gamesʼ are often played between issue holders who have some authority in the client system (‘clientsʼ), ‘helpersʼ (often internal or external consultants or staff representatives such as HR or Strategy) and those affected by changes. Games can only be played out if all parties are complicit at some level.

The upshot of game playing is that one or all parties find themselves set up to fail in their attempts to bring about a desired change.

The full paper can be downloaded here: Snookered Again- Game playing in Transformation and Organisational Change

In it we provide a perspective on why games are so prevalent, some of the more common ones we encounter, and some thoughts on how to get out of, or avoid getting into games in the first place.

Snookered again? ‘Game playing’ in Transformation and Change Consulting

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