Meetings with three different client organizations over the last couple of months reminded me of this article I wrote in 1998. Funny how some things never change. Here it is; slightly edited from the original version with the definitions for the major games at the bottom of this blog entry. As usual, your comments and thoughts are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org
Your pulse speeds up; your heart starts pounding; and you feel anxious in your stomach. Your primordial “fight or flight” system has been activated and your body shifts into overdrive. No, you are not about to be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger; it’s just Freddie from the accounting department trying to understand your budget, or a consultant asking you to explain your department’s strategy. So you put on your best political smile and start “the kabuki dance.” You are fighting for your territory as if it was fighting for your life.
The desire to protect our territory, whether physical, political, or psychological, is a built-in trait for human beings. Since we no longer forage for our survival, the workplace has become a major environmental component of who we are. Our workplace, place of worship, or political party is now providing the equivalent of the physical territory of our ancestors. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs goes, psychological and emotional security has replaced physical security. Our natural instinct to protect ourselves is now focused on those aspects as opposed to our physical well-being. After all, how many nasty saber-tooth tigers do you see cruising through the halls of major corporations today – with the exception maybe of Freddie in the accounting department.
Let’s face it; eliminating territorial games is futile and pretending they do not exist is foolish. And, for you idealistic youngsters out there, refusing to deal with them is career suicide. Territorial games exist in every organization and nothing intensifies them more than an impending transaction such as an outsourcing deal, a potential M&A transaction, or just simply the hiring of an outside consultant or a new executive. My many years of experience at Ideasphere Partners in high stake change initiatives and projects have taught me a few lessons about how territorial games can torpedo a deal, a project, or a new initiative. Despite all the teamwork and kumbaya rhetoric that exists at the corporate level of organizations, territorial games are always going on and they are one of the critical factors that determine the outcome of any project.
Having a good strategy, a good contract, a good plan, a strong outsourcing partner, or even substantial financial gains for the outsourced employees can all be undermined. Many outsourcing contracts that were based on seemingly solid foundations between strong industry players have failed to produce the expected results. A closer look at the state of affairs and the reasons for the failure often show that territorial games was an important factor that was ignored.
This is an example from a real client (names altered to protect both the guilty and the innocent). After negotiating for nine months, the senior executives at WidgetsRus reached an agreement with ServExec to outsource their data center and network operations. The plan was to leverage ServExec’s size for better pricing and transfer about a hundred people to their payroll without any layoffs for at least two years. By all accounts it was a great deal for all involved. WidgetsRus would focus on their core competency of building better electronic mousetraps and ServExec would deliver more cost effective network and computing resources, while provide a better career path for the transitioned employees.
With great fanfare, both companies signed the agreement and issued appropriately rosy press releases of the event. Things went along for about three months and all was well; until WidgetsRus begun experiencing problems with network availability. The number of network failures was increasing, as was the mean-time-to-repair, and the network availability was the lowest it had ever been. Network availability was not a small thing because manufacturing facilities depended heavily on timely, almost real-time, information on part inventory for their Just-In-Time processes. When the network was unavailable, production efficiency declined, which had a financial impact on the company. After a couple of months of escalations and tense meetings, the WidgetsRus executives started demanding penalty payments for lost productivity based on the Service Level Agreement (SLA) they put in place with ServExec. Before long, WidgetsRus and ServExec executives found themselves sitting in front of an arbitration panel trying to resolve their issues. Unfortunately the relationship was beyond repair; the agreement was eventually scuttled; and ServExec begun the process of disengagement. By the time the “divorce” was over, both companies had lost significant amounts of money, let alone the reputation damage they both suffered.
So what happened? Why did this fail? After all, the deal was hailed as one of the best structured agreements and a win-win-win for both companies as well as the IT employees of WidgetsRus. Sad but true, this is how it played out…
The ServExec IT organization was a conservative, traditional group who had developed a reputation of service excellence and commitment to customer satisfaction. For those in the know, it was also viewed as a highly political organization. Charlie, the ServExec CIO was characterized by its peers as a “political animal” who did not take kindly to people threatening his territory. He had been able to use his tenure and position himself as an authority with most IT shops his organization absorbed and generally never felt threatened by a new team coming in. The WidgetsRus situation however was different. WidgetsRus IT team had developed from the ground up focusing on leading edge manufacturing and advanced electronics technologies. For those in the know, it was considered a fast moving innovative group with very little politics. In just a few weeks, ServExec executives started thinking of Jerry, the CIO at WidgetsRus as a “great manager” and there had been rumors that Jerry could be the heir apparent to Charlie.
Charlie did not take kindly to hearing that information and that’s how the games begun.
Charlie played them all. First he started the occupation game. Every time Jerry planned a meeting with his former bosses, now clients of ServExec, Charlie showed up and monopolized the meeting. When WidgetsRus executives requested ServExec’s participation in IT strategy sessions, Charlie would attend without inviting Jerry. Then came the camouflage game. During Jerry’s first performance review discussion, Charlie told him he was very unhappy with the way the ServExec applications group managed their change control process and asked him to spend time understanding what the problem was and how to improve it. So for the next several weeks Jerry spent the majority of his time in meetings discussing change control processes and not focusing on the WidgetsRus business he was supposed to oversee. At the same time, Charlie started a shunning game. He publicly ignored Jerry’s suggestions; did not invite him to critical staff meetings; always referred to him as “Jerry from WidgetsRus,” and, in general, positioned him as an outsider who could not be trusted.
Charlie was so good at playing these games, Jerry had no chance, and half the times did not even know he was part of a game. When he finally realized something was up, he was still out-maneuvered by Charlie. When Jerry complained about not being included in the WidgetsRus planning meetings, Charlie would tell him they were routine client relations meetings and would assure him when strategy was discussed he would be included. When Jerry complained about the meaningless change control project assignment, Charlie made him look like he was a whiner and not a team player, who did not want to take on important projects. When Jerry felt Charlie was excluding him from ServExec group activities he was told to stop being a cry-baby and not be so sensitive about minor social issues.
And so it went for several months, until Jerry decided he had enough and left the company.
That made Charlie very happy. He proceeded to appoint one of his trusted “insiders” to lead the WidgetsRus group and stopped paying attention to that unit. Since the new ServExec manager was a traditional ServExec buraucrat with no expertise in technology, let alone the leading edge technology WidgetsRus used, he focused on administrative aspects and cost cutting projects. Without a strong leader at the top, the group floundered, some of the best people left, and the service levels fell to the floor. And that was how Service and WidgetsRus ended up in the arbitrator’s office.
This did have a somewhat of a happy ending however. It was that deal that finally made the ServExec Sr. management team realize that Charlie was more interested about protecting his turf than the interests of the company, so they unceremoniously fired him. And Jerry? Well, as soon as the deal was unwound, WidgetsRus hired him back to be the manager responsible for the performance of the new outsourcing partner and eventually promoted him to group CIO.
Definitions of Territorial Games
The occupational game – “Marking” territory; maintaining an imposing physical presence; acting as the gatekeeper for vital information; monopolizing relationships, resources, or information
The information manipulation game – Withholding; putting a spin on, covering up, or giving false information to prevent or direct action
The intimidation game – Growling, yelling, staring someone down, scaring someone off, or making threats (overt or covert)
The powerful alliances game – Using relationships with powerful people to intimidate, impress, or threaten others; using name dropping; making strategic displays of influence over important decision makers
The invisible wall game – Actively creating counterproductive perceptions so that an agreed upon concept is very difficult, if not impossible to implement
The strategic non-compliance game – Agreeing up front to take action but having on intention of doing it; or agreeing just until you find a reason to avoid taking that action
The discredit game – Using personal attacks or unrelated criticism as a way of creating doubts about another person’s competence or credibility
The shunning game – Subtly, or not so subtly, excluding an individual in a way that punishes them; orchestrating a group’s behavior so another person is treated as an outsider
The camouflage game – Creating a distraction by emphasizing the inconsequential or triggering someone’s anxiety buttons just to distract them
The filibuster game – Using excessively verbiage to prevent action; out talking any objectors at a meeting; talking until time for discussion is exhausted, or simply wearing others out by out-talking them