Nick was a human relations manager in a large telecommunications business.  He had many years’ experience of HR, having worked in a diverse range of industries from car manufacture to food processing to computers.

Nick a man of average build who looked remarkably like 1960s prime minister Harold Wilson without the pipe.  He was fond of pontificating and could produce an instant opinion on, well, anything!  Over the years, Nick had formed strong views about many issues, particularly about the role of HR and the many dilemmas it faced as a service activity.  He was prone to launch into homilies on what the HR function should do and not do for line managers.  His general view was that line managers were poor at managing people and that HR had to work hard to compensate.  However, he was clear that it would be a mistake for HR to let line managers’ escape their responsibilities.  He maintained that it was a matter of working out what to do for the line and what to do with the line.  He was adamant that HR should be an active participant in all major business decisions, but that a place at the top table had to be earned rather than expected.

Many years previously Nick had come across Transactional Analysis and it still exerted a strong influence over the way he saw the world.  He was fond of labelling people according to what he imagined was their predominant ego state.  He’d come away from a difficult meeting with a line manager muttering about crossed transactions and having been on the receiving end of too much ‘critical parent’.  Or, if someone was flippant, he’d put it down to a surfeit of ‘natural child’.  Sometimes – not often – he would claim that an interaction, even with a line manager, had been ‘adult to adult’.

He was fond, too, of identifying the psychological ‘games’ people played at work.  He would often confront someone by saying, ’Ah, you’re playing ‘Yes But’ with me!’ or, ‘That’s the ‘I Was Only Trying To Help’ game.’  When Nick exposed what he asserted was a game, he would do so with unrestrained relish.  Anyone who had the audacity to question his prognosis was accused of playing the innocent victim and resorting to the ‘Who, Me?’ game. 

Not content with the games described in Eric Berne’s book Games People Play, Nick would invent games to fit the situation.  If, for example, someone grumbled about a colleague, they’d be accused of playing the ‘It’s All Their Fault’ game.  If someone capitulated too easily, they’d be accused of playing ‘Anything For A Quiet Life’.  If someone in a meeting suggested that more data should be collected before a decision could be made, they’d be accused of playing the ‘Paralysis by Analysis’ game.  If, on the other hand, someone made an instant decision, they’d be accused of playing the ‘Quick Fix’ game.  Whatever happened, Nick was ready with a game to fit the circumstances.

For Nick, the one basic message was the need for authentic communication between consenting adults.  He maintained that the onus was always on the communicator, and that if the receiver of a communication was unclear or confused then the transmitter of the communication was responsible, not the receiver.  From time to time, Nick would drive the message home by insisting that the receiver of a message described, in their own words, the meaning they had derived.  Nick would then turn to the communicator and ask whether that was an accurate interpretation.  Whenever it wasn’t, Nick would beam happily, like a school- teacher catching someone misbehaving behind the bicycle sheds.

The MD of the company decided to take a number of the most senior directors away to a hotel for a couple of days where they would spend time working on a ten-year strategy for the business.  Nick, even though he wasn’t a member of the MD’s inner cabinet, was invited to join them.  He was delighted to receive the invitation, which he considered a long overdue vote of confidence in the HR function.  He saw it as a rare opportunity to demonstrate the added value that HR could contribute.

The meeting began, and it wasn’t long before Nick realised that some words were being banded about with no agreed understanding of their meaning.  The word ‘strategy’ was one example. So far as Nick could make out, to some people this appeared to mean a vision, to others an objective, to others a plan and so on.  Nick toyed with the idea of intervening but decided to bide his time and see how the conversation developed.

Other words were used, such as ‘paradigm’ and ‘differentiation’, and Nick became increasingly concerned that there was no shared understanding.  Eventually, he could bear it no longer.  He leaped up, rushed to the flip chart, snatched up a felt-tipped pen and wrote the word STRATEGY in big capital letters.

‘Gentlemen,’ said Nick, ‘You ought to agree what this word means!  A shared understanding is absolutely essential before you move on.’

The MD replied, ‘Thank you Nick, but I don’t think that will be necessary.’

‘But,’ said Nick, determined to seize the moment, ‘There are a number of different meanings in this room and unless you bottom them out you’ll be  hampered when it comes to formulating a strategy.’

‘Nick,’ said the MD calmly, ‘Take it from me, we all know what we mean.’

‘Aha!’ cried Nick triumphantly, ‘You’re playing the ‘We All Know What We Mean’ game!’

‘That’s right,’ said the MD cheerfully. ‘And you are playing the ‘I’ll Hold Up the Action By Being A Real Pain In The Arse’ game.  Please sit down, Nick.’





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