Psychological Games at Work

What lies beneath…? Delving under the surface of those stuck or broken relationships at work.

Frustrating relationships at work can take up a disproportionate amount of our emotional energy and are highly counter-productive.  Helping ourselves and our coaching clients to face and explore these relationships can in turn be extremely valuable.  Psychodynamic theory, in particular the idea of psychological game-playing, provides us with a framework for gaining insight into these stuck or broken relationships, and in particular makes us pay attention to what is going on beneath the words and behaviours. 

Psychological Games

Psychological games can be thought of as emotionally charged interactions, which can be likened to a dramatic production, being played out again and again, in an inescapable cycle.  You could consider games as repeating patterns of dysfunctional behaviour.  There’s certainly very little fun involved in them! People may shift their roles during the course of the drama of a psychological game, and both parties usually feel worse rather than better for having taken part.  In the late 1960’s, Stephen Karpman pointed out that dramatic interchanges involve a triangular pattern of three positions: Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim.

A Typical Game

Eric Berne, the original proponent of Transactional Analysis, wrote the book ‘Games People Play’.  In it, he identifies a number of these psychological games or dramas that people play out repeatedly.  For example in a game that he labels ‘Why Don’t You?…Yes, But’ you might on the surface see this:  Person A seeks advice from Person B.  Person B believes that they can help and offers a number of solutions, but the more they offer these solutions, the more they are rebuffed by Person A.  Eventually Person B becomes irritated and walks away, or says something sharp or critical to Person A that they later regret.  Does this sound familiar?  Might one of your coaching clients be stuck in this sort of game?  Berne argues that this is what is really going on here: Person A isn’t really asking for help at all.  They are in fact luring Person B into a game in which they can explore their feelings of ‘not being OK’, which they likely first experienced as a child.  Therefore, what Person A is really looking for is sympathy, not solutions, and the best way to get sympathy is as a victim needing help, who will either be rescued or persecuted because of their adopted position of victim-hood.  Over the years, psychotherapists have identified numerous games, over and above those first suggested by Berne. All well and good, but the pertinent question is:

How Can You Change the Game?

In coaching work, it is valuable to help clients identify relationships that have a distinctly game-like feel to them.  Building up your client’s awareness of game-playing at work helps the person to avoid being sucked in to the game in the first place.  Questions to ask include:

  • What’s going on?  Step back and consider what’s going on in the game. Get down to the detail of exactly what is happening over and over again
  • How does it start? Next, try to work out how the game starts
  • What’s the sequence? Then, go through the game step by step and piece together the sequence it follows
  • Where does it end? Explore how the game ends and how your client usually feels at the end of it

A lot of depth coaching is about encouraging coachees to step outside of themselves and to develop an observing ego.  When you do this, you are helping a coachee build up their self-awareness, sit with their feelings rather than push them away or project them onto others and to have choice in the way that they respond.  Choice is infinitely better than compulsion and a life lead flexibility and adaptively generally makes for a better leadership style.

It’s the same with games.  Ultimately, we have to facilitate the stepping outside of the game or ‘drama triangle’ in order to see it for what it is.  Sometimes, using the ‘empty chair technique’, another method borrowed from psychotherapy, can be a helpful means of exploring this.  (See our book, ‘Staying Sane in Business’ for more detail on this.)  Unearthing the psychological games that go on at work is an important tool for staying sane and leading a fulfilled and happy work life.

Article references:

Berne, E., (1964). Games People Play. Grove Press

Karpman, S., (1967, 2007). USATAA/ITAA conference lecture August 11, 2007, free download at

Weinhold, B. & Weinhold, J., How to Break Free of the Drama Triangle and Victim Consciousness (2104), CICRCL Press

Jackie Sykes

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This site is maintained by two individuals who wear more than one hat – be it consultant, psychologist or psychotherapist – so you should expect to find a wide range of materials that are all about how people learn, perform and grow. Chris and Jackie founded Sixth Sense Consulting Ltd in 2010. We provide assessment, leadership development, team building, career transition, psychotherapy, and wellbeing services to individuals and organisations. Our aim is to share materials and resources we use in our day to day work with others in a digestible and practical format.


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