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Posted on February 10, 2020
Updated on October 13, 2021

Games Played in Organisations

Games are the process of doing something with an ulterior motive, played outside of the Structural Adult ego state awareness, according to a set of rules. They have a familiar pattern of behaviour with a predictable outcome. They do not become explicit until the participants switch the way they are behaving.

Zalcman favoured the following definition: “a well-defined series of transactions in which at least one player offers a con (as stimulus with an ulterior message) and eventually pulls a switch and collects a pay-off”. She also believes that this theory should be called Social Systems Analysis.

In her article she compares and contrasts different theorists’ ideas on games and is an important read for those who wish to have a more in-depth understanding. Zalcman outlines her difficulties with the various perspectives on games including Berne’s Formula G in which the interactional nature of the game is missing. The other player is not considered as initiating and promoting the game. Hine does this in her paper on games (see later in these notes).

Berne in his writings about games (1961, 1964, 1975) focused on individual moves and the roles of the players. In organisations we need to look further than this. In organisational games we are concerned with intra and inter-group dynamics. Therefore, the focus with individual games is on what TA theorists tend to call social psychiatry whereas with organisational games it is on social dynamics.

In organisations games are distinguished by:

  • Being played repeatedly by group members
  • Rewards being offered by the group itself
  • Being supported by the group culture
  • Providing opportunities and justification for advancement of the game.
  • First degree – players willing to play in social circle
  • Second degree – players would rather not make public
  • Third degree – games which are played for keeps, end in surgery, the courtroom or the morgue.
  • Enduring the distress
  • Demanding compensation
  • Retaliation
  • Psychologically justify and rationalise the inequity i.e. “I don’t work as hard so I don’t deserve as much”.
  • Withdraw (Clavier, Timm, Wilkens, 1978, TAJ, 8:4)

Typical Organisational Games

  • We want to further our script
  • We want to reinforce our life position
  • We want to return to an early symbiotic position
  • We want to obtain strokes
  • We developed strategies  which worked as a child and have not caught up with the fact that they are no longer helpful

Berne’s Six Advantages of Games

  • Biological advantage: This relates to the minimum stroking quotient we need, games are a reliable way to get strokes, even if they are negative.
  • Existential advantage: This concerns our overall attitude to ourselves, others and the world – our life position. The game outcome reinforces our core beliefs.
  • External psychological advantage: Our way of avoiding situations which challenge my frame of reference and so avoid anxiety. If I play “Yes But” for example, I can avoid solving a problem and shifting to the OK/OK position. I can say that no-one can complete work on time and so convince myself that the world is unfair.
  • Internal psychological advantage: This is a way of avoiding the original pain and maintaining the script belief that this is the way to get attention even if we hurt.
  • External social advantage: We can tell our friends about it when we see them and give a detailed account of who said and did what. Our friends can then support our perspective and receive strokes as the story unfolds.
  • Internal social advantage: re-playing the game in our heads means that we re-experience the feelings. We can then go over and over the racket feelings we experienced and reinforce them.
  • Outing hidden agendas,
  • Respecting others, both as people and for their position
  • Clear, written contracts
  • No exploitation
  • Respect of organisational culture
  • Knowledge of group working with
  • Focus on health of organisation, group, individual
  • Ensuring humour is neither sexist or racist
  • Developmental focus is maintained rather than therapy
  • Time boundaries are maintained
  • Personal/professional boundaries are maintained (Amended from Garfield (1993))

Poindexter Syndrome

The Bilateral and Ongoing Nature of Games

Groups and Games

  • a biological need for stimulation
  • a psychological need for time-structuring
  • a social need for intimacy
  • a nostalgic need for patterning transactions
  • a provisional set of expectations base on past experiences. The task is then to adjust these needs and expectation to the reality that confronts him (Berne, 1963, p221)
  • games are played repeatedly as a matter of course by members
  • They offer rewards from within the group itself
  • They are supported by the group culture
  • Use the Winner’s Pyramid (Mountain A) concept
  • Spot the opening discount
  • Ensure strokes are frequently and positively obtained
  • Catch the ulterior message
  • Watch for driver behaviour
  • Don’t pick up the negative payoff
  • Be open with the other person about needs and wants

Degrees of Game

Classically there are three degrees of games:

We would add to this as the above tend to be used when referring to individuals. Where societies and cultures are involved we (Mountain Associates – prompted by C. Davidson) would suggest there is a fourth degree. Where outcomes could affect whole communities, cities or countries (or even the world) there is a qualitative increase in the outcomes. Thus, riots and wars would fall into this category.

In organisations some theorists would use mild, moderate and severe instead of degrees.

There is a link with stroking patterns in organisations. Where employees perceive there to be an inequity of stroking by management they will react in a number of ways:

It is easy to see how games could flourish in such circumstances.

Games are often given names in TA as a way of giving a flavour of the dynamic which is involved. In organisations there are some classical games which are played. For example:

Lunch bag: we bring our lunch to work so that we can continue to work through the lunch break. Others are going out for lunch and we offer to take phone calls. We are busy during the lunch break and on our colleagues eventual return to work we regale them with this and what we have had to do on their behalf. We feel self-righteous and they feel guilty.

Now I’ve Got You: This is a typical game in an organisation involving power plays.  It occurs when we find ways to put one over on someone or catch them out. When we are successful at this, the other person is then likely to look out for an opportunity to get us back (or vice versa). This can sometimes mean to the point of ensuring someone loses their job.

Uproar: This can be played by setting others up to argue, and then withdrawing ourselves and watching the “fireworks”.  We can then say to passers by “I was just asking X” or “I was just interested in what they though about Y”.

We play games because:

Some of these reasons relate to the Six Advantages to Games outlined by Berne (1964):

Chris Davidson (2011), developed the following as a way of remembering why we play games:

Why we play games

Games and Ethics

Maintaining an ethical stance when working in organisations helps to prevent games:

Poindexter (1977) highlighted a phenomenon which became known as the Poindexter syndrome. This is when unconscious dishonesties result in ulterior moves, which unwittingly, oppose the intended goals of the organisation. He cites the example of a shipyard which employed over 10,000 people.  One unit was given special status. They gave themselves various rewards, including a new tea urn and baseball caps to wear. Without any pressure from management they turned out 250% above the required output.

The other employees in the organisation complained. Their output was 30-70% of required output and they were jealous of the perks and incentives the other unit had.

The organisation moved the supervisor of the specialist unit and the new supervisor stopped the men wearing the caps, transferred men to other units and within a week, production of the unit was down 50%.

So the Poindexter syndrome occurs when people are almost too successful for their own good.

J. Hine (1990) talks about the bilateral and ongoing nature of games with interlocking of each player’s cons and gimmicks. In her theoretical model Hine separates out the players and their intra-psychic processes are diagrammed separately. She maintains that each person’s response is an invitation to continue the game and is therefore a con, and that we are all motivated by our own particular gimmick which is buried somewhere in the recesses of our psyche. Every time a switch and crossup occur, each person takes an intrapsychic payoff in the form of charges of negative emotional energy, which are non-problem solving

A group is considered to be a collection of individuals who come together for an apparently common purpose. At the social level the task is agree but at the psychological level there may be either: conflicting, confluent, or complementary ulterior level agendas.

We need to consider games when working with groups. Whilst more serious games are more likely to occur when the group state is “operative” some do appear when the group is at the “provisional” stage, but these are considered “mild” or first degree.

In the Provisional Group Imago members enter the group with:

Poindexter outlines a range of organisational games and their social and ulterior levels. He also looks at politics and how national and social games are played out. He considers the game of “I’m Only Trying to Help You” which, at the social level is about everybody making a living wage but at the ulterior level is really about those who are poor not being included.

Summerton (1993), states that:

The technicalities of the culture provide the milieu, opportunities, resources, and justification for the advancement of games and the payoff.

According to Summerton the etiquette provides the guidelines for which games are acceptable and the culture provides a rationalisation for the psycho-social aberrations that arise as a result.


Berne, E (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, Condor Books

Berne, E (1964) Games People Play, Penguin

Berne, E (1975) What do you Say after you Say Hello, Corgi

Buchanan, D The Politics of Organisational Change, Workshop Notes, CIPD

Clarkson P (1991), Group Imago and Stages of Group Development, TAJ 21:1

Clavier, Timm, Wilkens (1978) Effects of Salient Communicative Strokes on Subordinate Employees in a Health Care Organization, TAJ, 8:4

Garfield, V (1993) Ethical Principles for Work in Organizations , TAJ, 23:2)

Hine, J (1990) The Bilateral and Ongoing Nature of Games , TAJ 1990, 20:1

Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2011), Working Together; Orgainizational Transactional Analysis and Business Performance, Gower

Poindexter WR (1975) Organisational Games, TAJ 5:4

Poindexter WR (1977) The Poindexter Organisation, Agoura: Transan Publications

Shaffer, T L (1970) The Law and Order Game, TAB 70:34

Summerton O (1993), Games in Organizations, TAJ 23:2

Zalcman M (1990), Game Analysis and Racket Analysis: Overview, Critique, and Future Developments, TAJ 20:1 .