A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 23rd, 2014 by William


In the 1970s movie, Bang the Drum Slowly, two of the main characters–a star pitcher and a team coach–engage in a small-scale swindle in the lobbies of the hotels the baseball team stays in during road trips. The pitcher and coach sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and begin a heated card game. Pretty soon a few observers gather to watch the game. Eventually, a curious observer, thoroughly confused by watching a game that he has never seen played before, asks the pitcher and coach what they are playing. “TEGWAR,” they respond. After a few more minutes, the onlooker asks if he can play and is invited to sit in. The newcomer wins a few hands, but still has no clue what he is doing. The hands get faster and faster, the cards fly, and eventually the newcomer gets on a losing streak—still completely befuddled by the game and what exactly is happening. When another teammate asks about the game and asks what TEGWAR stands for, he is told it means, “That Exciting Game without Any Rules.”

TEGWAR is a lot like the average workplace. Why? Because despite the fact that most all organizations have numerous rules there still can remain a game-like atmosphere surrounding how employees interact with each other. And when it comes to employee interaction there are really few, if any, rules. Many workplaces can be “dog-eat-dog.” That’s not to say that employers don’t try to establish rules governing employee interaction. Most often employers set rules to try to maintain a supposed professional atmosphere. They usually do this through their “values” statement which typically has the following goals:

• To set expectations for behavior and conduct
• To promote consistent and equitable treatment of employees
• To commit to the safety, health and well-being of workers
• To proclaim that they respect human rights
• To promote harmony and reduce conflict

Usually all the above are captured in a list of the latest buzzword statements like “we support work-life balance” and “we have respect for each other,” etc. But, as I’ve written many times before, these words are usually just wishful thinking on the part of management.

Most employers also implement a wide range of rules and procedures that they feel are necessary to maintain the good order and operations of the workplace. The rules required can vary greatly from one organization to the next based upon the unique challenges and circumstances of each. Certainly eliminating harassment and promoting ethical business practices rise to the top of the necessary rules list. However, despite that the rules seldom limit the most common kind of harassment and unethical behavior–a micromanaging, workaholic boss. When you consider these kinds of rules it becomes clear why organizations have them–to protect themselves from liability when one of their employees sexually harasses someone or when an employee is caught in unethical doings. After all, employers are more and more being held legally responsible for the conduct of employees in their workplace.

Thus rules are necessary to ensure order right? However, the fact is having rules, no matter how in-depth and detailed, do not guarantee that they’ll be followed or that even management follows them. The reality is that, despite all the rules, the way employees interact with each other can be little better than a free for all. From my own experience I’ve witnessed workplaces where all the typical rules were in place yet the true atmosphere of the organization–the culture–was one of “every man for himself.” So you have to ask yourself what’s the value in having rules when they are so often ignored–or certainly not enforced? Sadly the answer to that is the fact that even the highest on the corporate ladder partake in the games. If management ignores the rules so does everyone else in the organization.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say. I wholeheartedly believe in the necessity of having a structure of rules in the workplace governing employee behavior. Even in the most dysfunctional organization there usually is a certain level of adherence to the rules. That said this post isn’t about the kind of rules we’ve talked about above. This post is about the games that people play that have no rules and that no rules can control. They can’t be controlled because even management or human resources won’t typically admit that these games actually happen in “their workplace.” Heck, management and HR most likely play the games themselves. What I’m talking about are the typical “mind games” that permeate every organization.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of mind games, and we’ve all experienced people who like to “test” us, put us through a psychological ringer, and throw us under the bus in a heartbeat. These people are our colleagues and peers, and yes, even our bosses. These are the exact group of people who should be treating each other with respect. If everyone in the workplace respected each other the need for more teamwork wouldn’t have to be constantly preached by management and it wouldn’t have to be reiterated in the values statement.

There are various reasons why our colleagues and peers will engage in mind games with us. Most often it’s to jockey for position on the corporate ladder–to gain a higher level on the ever-narrowing pyramid. Since there are fewer and fewer positions as you rise up the ladder the competition for those positions can become intense. And sadly, as most of us can attest, just doing a good job doesn’t guarantee success. You need either connections or you need some leg-up on the competition. In fact most often your success is directly related to your relationship with your boss and management as a whole. This is why sycophancy–brownnosing–is such a popular workplace sport. Of course even that can’t guarantee success. As I’ve explained many times before even the most loyal sycophant will ultimately fall from grace in the eyes of the sociopath he or she has latched onto.

Thus the real games people play are geared more toward the torpedoing of fellow employees–throwing them under the bus so to speak. There’s an old saying: if you want to biggest house in the neighborhood you can get it in one of two ways. You can work hard to build it or you can tear everyone else’s house down. Thus most games in the workplace are geared toward tearing other people’s houses down. All the games that people play against each other can be summed up in one term that everyone has heard of before: office politics. For most people in the workplace office politics is in fact “that exciting game without any rules.”

In his article “Definition of Politics: The Ugly Game of Power,” G. B Singh brilliantly noted that office politics really means nothing more than “the game of power that the mighty play to hold their domination over the weak.” It includes the pursuit of individual agendas and self-interest without regard to their effect on the organization’s ability to achieve its goals or maintain even its fundamental well-being. That is why University of Pennsylvania Organizational Dynamics Professor John Eldred’s definition is spot on; “[office] politics is simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis.”

The sad fact that you should never forget is that no workplace is immune to struggles for power. Office politics is at the core of all organizations. Office politics is synonymous with hypocrisy, secrecy, deal making, rumors, power brokers, self-interest, image building, self-promotion and cliques. Office politics are how things get done at the expense of others which explain why most organizations operate under a Machiavellian work ethic. Since office politics is by definition a negative activity, it offers little positive good toward the success of an organization.

The reasons for engaging in office politics are as varied as the people perpetrating the individual acts. However, they can be classified under one of several prevalent, negative variables: (a) limited resources and opportunity for advancement, (b) employees’ emotional insecurity, (c) over competitiveness, (d) a win-loss organizational attitude, (f) the need for personal acceptance, and (g) the most common motivator–self interest

So if your workplace is rife with office politics there’s really only one response–you need to join in and fight fire with fire. For as Plato is credited with saying: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Of course he was talking about politics in the elected-office sense however; his wisdom also applies to the workplace.


One Response to “TEGWAR”
  1. Wonderful post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Many thanks!

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