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How not to be a subject of manipulation – psychological games c.d.

Last month, I outlined a complex game in the organization, which can last for days, weeks, even months. Yet, we also encounter other form of games in the professional environment, which are mostly played between two people. And this article elaborate on that topic.

When we reflect on the past month or quarter – has there been a situation when after exchanging views with another person, both of you left dissatisfied. Questions arise of why, despite all the good intentions, we allowed for such a behavior one again? Why do I keep meeting these kind of people in my life? Why am I unable to change this?

Try to distance yourself and answer a question of whether that situation resemble others in which we have participated? Of course, the context might have been different, we might have been younger, and the people different, but the ending leaves a similar, negative emotional experience. If yes, then you probably (unconsciously) took part in a psychological game.

What is a game?

There are a few definitions of psychological games. According to an author of Transactional Analysis – Eric Berne, it is a series of complementary, hidden transactions leading to well-defined, easily predictable result or to explain it a little better – it is a series of behaviors, which appear harmless but there is a hidden motivation behind them – very often unconscious. It becomes obvious once participants change their behavior. It often leaves them feeling disappointed, confused, or misunderstood which leads to blaming one another for the situation. Eric Berne extended his initial definition to the so-called „G Formula” (Game), which will be elaborated upon later. So much for theory, lets move on to practice.


A group of colleagues goes for lunch. When they are about to leave, one person suggests for them to go to an Italian restaurant just around the corner. Most of them agree, but one of the colleagues does not want eat Italian food second time in a row. They are walking and another proposition comes up, to go to an Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, it’s too spicy for our friend. They go farther and see Thai food. But it doesn’t suit him either. One of the people can’t bear it anymore and says to a fussy friend that either he decides upon something or he will be eating alone, since they are hungry and don’t have time for such fussiness.

Other example.

A subordinate is asked by his boss to prepare a proposed solution to a problem given. He spends the whole weekend preparing the project, trusting that his boss will like it. When he comes to work on Monday and presents his idea, superior says that the proposition is interesting yet he is not convinced. Subordinate tries to come up with another idea and once he is ready he comes back to present it. Unfortunately, it is not on point either. He prepares the third proposition, but yet again, it gets dismissed. Faced with unsatisfactory solutions presented by the subordinate, the boss recommends his own but makes the subordinate responsible for incorporating them.


In both situations, we are faced with a psychological game of „Yes, but…”. These seemingly trivial social situations show how omnipresent in the world games are. When we take a closer look, we  can distinguish a few typical traits:

Games tend to repeat themselves – it often turned out that we are faced with a concrete behavior of the other party (colleague, boss, friend, foe, etc.) and our reaction to it. Context and people may change but concrete behaviors and reactions are very often repeated.

Games more often than not are played unconsciously – typical interactions with other people are so inscribed into our ritual of conduction that we do not reflect on the scheme: stimulus – reaction – stimulus – reaction. At the end of the turn, when we are faced with our own negative emotions, we ask ourselves: Why did it happen to ma again? How is it possible? Unfortunately, rationalization mechanism often turns on at this point and justification, which often is not dependent on us compliments the picture and seldom do we know that we were the active factor which caused the situation.

Emotions experienced at the end of the game are rather unpleasant – each round ends up violating balance in participant’s relationship and leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Games are played on two levels: social and psychological – they are often about rational exchange, but on psychological level scripts of personal behavior are being realized, which often were inscribed many years earlier, sometimes even in childhood. Games are characterized by a moment of surprise and confusion – usually, during the game, the culmination of behaviors in the role play occurs when the players swap roles.

Exercise part I

It takes 10 minutes. Write down answers to the following questions on a sheet of paper:

  1. What situation happens to me a lot? Comes back to you like a boomerang?
  2. How does it usually begin?
  3. What happens next?
  4. What secret motivation guides your behavior?
  5. How does the turning point looks like?
  6. What secret motivation guides other persons behavior?
  7. How does this end?
  8. How do you feel, how does the other person feel?

G Formula 

Eric Berne created a model, which explains the mechanics of the game:

Eric Berne w miarę rozwoju swojej teorii stworzył model, który wyjaśnia w jaki sposób przebiega gra:

Lure + Weak point > Reaction/Response > Turning point/Switch > Consternatiom and Payout

Let’s analyze how it looks like on the example of the boss and subordinate:

Lure – the boss asks a subordinate to prepare a proposal to solve the problem. On the open level, the boss delegates the task, but unconsciously he competes with a potential candidate for his position, which at some point may be a threat. So far, the employee has shown an extraordinarily high level of engagement and has been recognized more widely in the organization, the more so since he himself has joined the company’s talent development program.

A weak point – an area of employee’s hidden motivation to prove himself and prove to the boss that he is worth the responsibility. This motivation may be due to lack of self-confidence, the desire to be perfect, or the need to meet the needs of others. This causes the player to grab a lure and continue playing.

Reaction / Response – is a set of transactions between game participants leading to the climax. In this case it is the criticism of the first and subsequent ideas and the adequate response of the employee, who is doing everything to meet the requirements of the boss.

A turning point / switch – is the moment when the roles change – the boss of the person trying to solve the problem becomes the decision-maker who assumes responsibility and proposes his own resolution of the situation.

Consternation – In the face of such turnover, the employee is surprised by the turn of events. He had the impression that his involvement and recommendations would be rewarded, but in the meantime they were proved worthless.

Payout – the consequence of this game is the disappointment on both sides. The employee feels that he has not met the task and leaves the game with a scratch on his or her own image and the feeling that he is not as much as he thought. However, the boss after a short satisfaction has the feeling that unfortunately all is still on his shoulders, he can’t trust anyone in his team, because even such a simple problem he had to solve himself, because even his best employee did not deliver.

Exercise part. II

Now lets analyze your answers looking at the model and try to think about the similarities in your story. Do you notice them? 

Exit the game

The question arises: if we are entering games unconsciously, can we break out? It’s hard when we are being unconscious. However, when we realize that we are in the game, then it can be easier.

  • First of all, it is important to remember your weaknesses and our reactions when tested by others.
  • Second, pay attention to whether a particular situation tends to repeat in our lives.
  • Third, before you speak, ask yourself what out partner wants to achieve. And when we are already in the game and we realize it, we should pause, give a name to our hidden needs that we want to play and ask ourselves whether the game is worth it.

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