Beating the Game that Destroys Innovation

We Do Not Talk About the Game

At far too many companies, being an employee means you have to play the . You know the one — it has two sets of rules, and the real rules often contradict the “official” rules. As with , any reference to the Game or a set of unspoken rules is verboten, and allusions to secret rules will be countered vehemently with scorn, ridicule, threats, or even laughter. Both sets of rules are administered haphazardly and inconsistently by biased referees (collectively called “HR”) and overseen by executives who are often incentivized to serve the interests of people who are not even in the company. Politics and likeability are often the sole determinants of if or how harshly a rule violator is prosecuted, and there is a whole underground system for handling things. Learning the Game is done by a combination of onboarding, mentorship, undocumented whispers, and trial-and-error, which means extremely competent people can have their tenure hijacked by a whim.

Example: Not-So-Little White Lies

Several times in my career, I have gotten requests in which I was supposed to analyze the data objectively so that I could arrive at my employer’s prearranged conclusion. Yes, you read that correctly. As a data analyst, I was expected to be honest and objective and to report whatever was in the numbers. Yet, I was expected to massage the numbers, obscure some limitations, and twist the report so that its unsubstantiated conclusion can appear to be “evidence-based” and stamped with my doctorate for legitimacy. My wallet hates me for what happened next each and every one of those times. I know that at least one of those firms got someone else to crunch the numbers, and the biased conclusions were actually published. Some argued with me that since there’s always someone willing to take the money and do the job, why shouldn’t I? Can’t I just ?

Let me ask you this: If you were using the products/services of the companies who asked me to run data, would you want me to play The Game? It’s a funny paradox, because some of the very people who chided me for not playing The Game admitted, when pressed, that it wouldn’t be right for me to do so. Yet, so many companies expect people to lie so that the company can look good, and those who don’t have a rather unpleasant fate waiting for them (sadly, termination isn’t the worst possibility). But, it’s pretty hard to innovate when playing the Game forces people to choose between their integrity and their job, and those “little white lies” add up. Employees become immersed in fear, and unwilling to venture an unwanted opinion, lest they violate some rule of the Game and lose their job (of course, this was also a major factor in the Great Resignation). But, it is precisely that dissension that is so badly needed in order to identify problems, solve them, and make things work.

Of course, any kind of dissension, even when appropriate, can be risky.

Courtesy of the Peter Principle, too many managers end up in a position of power when they are not trained to handle it (this holds double when the person has to manage experts [here’s how]). In such situations, a highly-competent subordinate eventually comes across a situation where doing what they are told will ruin a project and/or cause a deadline to be missed. The common “solution” is to do what the manager said and then to add on enough bonus features to fix it, but there may not be enough time to do both. Another “solution” is to give the manager the result they requested and then suggest a fix when the manager sees the problem, but some managers will see the initial screwed-up result and call the employee incompetent for following their orders. This can also result in a missed deadline. Yet a third “solution” is to ignore the manager’s orders and just get the project done properly, but that falls quickly if the manager doesn’t like the process and calls the employee “insubordinate.” And, of course, telling the manager what’s wrong with their orders can be construed as a form of backtalk that will lead to problems, even if the manager supposedly welcomes disagreement.

Some will say that it’s all in the orders are questioned, but there are plenty of managers who want to give their orders and get a “yes, boss” — any other response is a problem. I once heard someone counter even that with, “just ask questions instead of making statements.” That can work, but only if the boss understands the reasons for the questions and has the time to answer them. Otherwise, the boss perceives the employee as stupid, incompetent, and/or wasting the manager’s time. The Game is to figure out which “solution” actually works, and praying to whatever one holds sacred that they guess correctly. When employees cannot speak up, and can even be fired for doing their job, there is no innovation.

Killing Off The Game

The biggest problem with the Game is that everything about it goes unspoken. There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that actually discussing the Game can lead to a lawsuit. The Game conceals discriminatory practices, jobs that were done shoddily if they were done at all, lies and half-truths knowingly told to stakeholders, webs of blame designed to cover people’s…actions (and egos!), and so much more that can be a liability to the company. This is precisely why speaking up can cause so much damage, and why anyone who attempts to speak up faces such dire consequences. In most companies with a Game, there is enough cleverness to bribe the people who are fired to keep them silent (better known as a “severance package”). Moreover, since the individual actions in the Game are often far removed from tangible consequences experienced by consumers, users, or the public, companies can comfortably deny that anything bad is happening. And then they are shocked to discover that they are seeing a slow decline in innovation, work/product/service quality, employee engagement, retention, and company loyalty.

Hidden in those problems, however, is the solution!

First, if there is a notable decline in any of the aforementioned, or more people are using sick/vacation days than usual, or there seems to be a spate of insubordination, factionalizing, gossip, or higher stress, your first step is to . There might be some major event that happened in the company. If nothing significant has happened (or potentially even if it did), you likely have a case of the Game.

Second, investigate the resignations and terminations that occurred in the last 6–12 months. Is it a large number? Are there any patterns? Are there plausible reasons underpinning these departures? Might there be other reasons why people left the company that weren’t stated? Is there any information in the exit interview? It may be helpful to speak to that person’s coworkers, subordinates, and managers, to get as clear of a picture as possible as to why things went south.

The idea behind all of this is to ascertain the unwritten rules of the Game, and why they exist. What is the company’s exact motive for playing the Game? What happens if all of the pretense shatters and everything is revealed? (And, in no way should this expose or punish those who play or propagate the Game — any threat of that will destroy any attempt to ferret out and extinguish the Game.)

Cleaning up this game is going to be time-consuming and expensive, and will require a full change management initiative. It is going to take months (6+ under the best of conditions), if not years, to rebuild the trust and establish a new culture that promotes innovation. The C-Suite needs to be involved in every step: meeting with all of the relevant stakeholders, laying bare the issues, determining how costs and reparations will be covered, and describing the culture that must be built. Having some outside help to follow up with employees, and/or having a designated member of HR or the C-Suite on hand to hear anonymous concerns, can facilitate the process.

It is important to remember, though, that this is a major overhaul for the company. Like a colony of termites, the Game ate away at the infrastructure of the company, chipping away even pieces of the core culture. Rebuilding takes investments of time, effort, and money, but it’s better than going down on a slowly sinking ship. After all, .

The Elements of a Better System

Bouncing back from the Game is akin to recovering from a disaster. People will be raw, stressed, and concerned about both their future and the future of the company, and it will take an influx of time, effort, money, and trust, to rebuild. But, what should be built?

After discarding the ashes of the old Game, the company must build an infrastructure that rests on nine pillars. These must be in place , or the Game will reappear. The mnemonic to remember is CALM VOICE:

1) — When people make mistakes, , they need assistance with rectifying the situation and growing from it. Mistakes are occasions for learning and opportunities for coaching. Coach — don’t reprimand or punish! (Remember: turnover is expensive!)

2) People need intrinsic and/or extrinsic rewards (as appropriate) for doing work well, and should receive extra rewards for going above and beyond the call of duty. Exceeding expectations should not be a requirement — raise the expectations, or raise the rewards!

3) — Management and leadership at all levels must be able to listen to employees’ concerns and ideas — they are the front line, and they often have a different perspective of which both management and leadership must be aware. If necessary, create a neutral ombuds office to buffer between employees and leadership.

4) — A clear and concise company mission, which doubles as its value proposition, and from which each employee can derive the meaning of their work. This also serves as a benchmark that any employee can use to determine if what they doing fits with the company and whether they are adding value.

5) — Employees must be able to speak up (respectfully!) and voice both disagreements and concerns without fear of retaliation.

6) — People need to be able to own up to mistakes and take responsibility for them without undue repercussions.

7) — People need to have the freedom to unleash their ingenuity while still being cognizant of the constraints of the company (e.g., timeline, budget, etc.).

8) — Honesty and mutual respect must be institutional values that are operationalized at all levels.

9) — Any unwritten rules must always be identified and acknowledged once the pattern becomes evident.

A good look at these items would reveal that nearly every good company is built on these nine elements, and making this happen is readily doable for any company. Putting these pillars in place after finding a Game, however, is a long-term process that can be painful and costly in the short term, and can take at least 6–12 months for even the smallest and fastest companies. Some people may need to leave their posts, but make sure that they are reassigned or assisted with procuring another position elsewhere so that they do not face unemployment or the tarnish of termination.

It may sound like too much, but ask what it would cost if the company does not succeed or dies a slow death. Better yet, ask why even the sky should be the limit!

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.