The Games People Play at Work

Dr Eric Berne is the creator of Transactional Analysis and the author of several books. Berne started publishing his work in 1957, and when he published The Games People Play in 1964, the world stopped to listen. It’s 55 years later and the theories and models he introduced then are still valid and applicable in the modern workplace. Whilst the workplace and the ways of work may have progressed dramatically in 55 years, human interaction has not. In fact, one may argue that in our time starved, change ready, hashtag emoji world, human interaction and connection has regressed to an all-time low.

With Transactional Analysis, Berne gave us a simple model to explain the interactions between humans.  Interactions allow us to get and give “strokes” which are a unit of recognition or attention and may be positive or negative. Each stoke stimulates us and affirms our sense of life, even if it’s negative. As social animals, strokes are like food, they provide the nutrients that we need. Just like our diet, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to get strokes. Heathy strokes are exchanged in open, honest, self-valuing relationships. The junk food of human relationships are what Berne calls “Games” which we engage in to get strokes without exposing ourselves to the vulnerability that intimate relationships ask of us.

And there, in that sentence, lies the word that we’d rather not deal with at work: intimacy. Actually, if Berne is to be believed, we’d rather not deal with the big I outside of work either. Intimacy was too hot to handle in the 60’s and is certainly an explosive topic in 2019.

What is intimacy? And why have we been burning our fingers on it for more than 55 years? And, seriously, how did intimacy make its way into the office?

Berne’s view is that intimacy can be achieved between people when interactions are honest and vulnerable, allowing fears, dreams, disappointment, anger, joy, sadness and all that other messy stuff to emerge. Intimacy happens when we know each other without defenses, without reservation, with openness and humanity. When we connect in all our messed up human splendor with someone that sees us, hears us, feels us and values us – that’s intimacy (just in case you’re still getting freaked out by the word, intimacy does not equal sex). And let’s face it, that’s not going to happen with the guy from Accounting or my boss or my customer. These are professional relationships! There’s safety in playing games and keeping your true selves hidden … and don’t we all just love feeling safe?

We play games to protect ourselves from vulnerability with others. We reveal a fraction of ourselves, we position ourselves, we put our game face on, we fake it till we make it.

But how often do we stop to consider what our strategy costs us?

Brené Brown entreats us to take another look at our safety when she says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” and “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

Leaving no space for misinterpretation, the “Start with Why” guy, Simon Sinek leaves us in no doubt about the cost of safety and the value of vulnerability when he describes great leaders: “The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses. The great leaders are not the smartest; they are the ones who admit how much they don’t know. The great leaders can’t do everything; they are the ones who look to others to help them. Great leaders don’t see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.”

It seems clear that, as leaders, it’s up to us to unlock the brilliance in our teams by caring for them first and having the courage to be vulnerable. How can we expect them to see, hear, feel and value our customers if we don’t see, hear, feel and value them first? How can they be brilliant at work if they’ve left most of who they are at home where it’s safe?

Game On works with leaders ranging from supervisors to execs in organisations in 2019, leaning heavily on thought leadership from 1964. Years may have passed and leadership styles may have changed, but the need for intimacy is as intrinsic to being human as eating and sleeping. So the choice is ours, are we going to inspire our people and customers with courageous open-hearted relationships or are we going to carry on playing games with them?


Brené Brown – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead


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