Virtual team games produce no winners

In 1964 psychiatrist Dr.Eric Berne published a now famous book Games people play in which he identified the different games people play, often unwittingly, in social situations based on his concept of transaction analysis. The advent of the virtual team has created a whole new set of games including Freeloader, Pseudo-engager, Chase-me, Senior Partner, Inquisitor, Stop-Starter, Overcommunicator, Email Fixater and Attachmentitis.


What is a "game"

Berne defines "games" as:

"A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome and a concealed motivation"

In Berne's terms games are a series of interactions between two or more people that follow a predictable pattern and ultimately progress to an outcome in which one individual obtains a "payoff" or "goal."

In most cases, the participants of the games are unaware that they are "playing."

9 Virtual Team Games

I believe that just like physical interactions, virtual interactions can also result in "games" - here are 9 I have personally experienced and, of course, played!

I am sure there must be others - all suggestions welcomed?

1. Freeloader

This is the most common virtual team game, also referred to as freerider. Freeloading is one of the biggest issues in any form of virtual collaboration as research shows the absence of direct personal interaction makes it more likely that a player will let another (remote) player down. Freeloading and what to do to stop it is described in more detail in Five tips for stopping team freeriders. In a sense many of these other games are variations on the freeloader theme.

2. Pseudo-engager

This is hard to spot for a while as the player is trying to trick you into thinking they are engaging. One of its symptoms is quick replies to emails and messages of a very short variety such as 'neat', 'worth discussing', 'will get back to you on this'. To pseudo-engagers you just have to track the last 3 replies of the player and ask yourself do these replies show evidence of the player having read and understood the correspondance. In other words could a random reply generator have created these replies (idea for a product!!!!). In real-time team communications the pseudo-engager is often guilty of excessive multi-tasking during meetings and not dedicating sufficient attention. (For more on the etiquette of virtual engagement see Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an etiquette for socially responsible use). Often a pseudo-engager is over-stretched and playing this game across all their teams.

3. Chase-me

This where the player expects to be hounded and chased before they are prepared to make any input. This is unfair as it requires a disproportionate amount of time on behalf of the other players. It is attractive to play becuase it can create the image that the player is very busy and/or very important. For example they only reply to 1 in 3 emails.

4. Senior partner

This is a bit like Chase-me except that they reply promptly but put all the work back to you. Its also a bit like the Pseudo-Engager except that they are actually reading and understanding your communications. They have put themselves into a reviewer role rather than a collaborator role.

5. Inquisitor

This one drives me mad - this is where the team member feels their role in the collaboration is only to ask questions and identify issues for you to solve. Inquistor is an essential role at certain times in teams and project but often it can become a players 'default game'. We all know people who are absolutely brilliant at it. You need to point out to the player when you dont want them playing this role.

6. Stop-Starter

Stop-starters engage erratically - alternating from no engagement to intensive engagement when the mood takes them or suddenly they have free time on their hands. It may be an indicator that they are badly organised in terms of managing their commitments

7. Overcommunicator

Also known as the Spammaster. They communicate so much (in frequency or depth) that they turn the other team members into pseudo-engagers. If you encourage them they will send even more. The best solution is to tell them to cut it back. Alternatively you can just ignore them and eventually it will go away but will be wasteful to all parties in the meanwhile.

8. Attachment-itis

Instead of getting the main message across they reference a number of attachments often without more explanation
than an 'FYI'. When you are on the end of this you feel resentment that they are being lazy. Have they even bothered to read the attachments themselves? Also it shows a lack of understanding of the work situations of the other team members. Are they travelling? What devices are they using? Can they even read attachments? What is the cost and time impact of downloading an attachment?

9.Email Fixater

This game involves you replying to every email with more detail and even more questions. You act like you believe skype has not been invented. Emails become so complicated that each set of responses needs to be coded in a different colour scheme. Guess what: generally these kind of exchanges just suddenly stop without resolving any of the issues as everybody suddenly became fatigued or realised the meaningless nature of the activity. So to stop the email fixater you just need 2 simple rules:

  1. Rule 1: No multi-topic emails - 1 email = 1 topic

  2. Rule 2 - After 3 emails if you feel the need to continue - no more email: pick up the phone!

What can you do?

First Examine yourself

Ask yourself which of these games you play under pressure. For example, I tend to be a pseudo-engager when I am over-committed. Then ask somebody else in the team for their opinion of your default game. If you do it humbly they might even invite your opinion about their game style.

Distinguish between insincere and incompetent games

Some of the games are true games in Eric Berne's sense where there is something insincere about them - essentially you are trying to look like something you are not. For example in Pseudo-engager you are trying to look like a committed team member but without putting in the necessary work. Other games, such as Overcommunicator, may just reflect a lack of understanding or competency and can easily be put right if pointed out properly.

Consider the interactions between games in a team

I discussed earlier how the games can be linked, for example, overcommunicators who create pseudo-engagers, so it is worth doing the exercise as a team. Best to do it in a fun and relaxed way. For example you could create stickers for each game and have people put the right sticker beside their team mates. A great question for a team is "when fred plays this game which game do I play in response".

Virtual Commitment

Many of these games reflect lack of commitment or engagement in a virtual team.

Often a team does not address this issue until it is too late.

Many of my other articles such as Dysfunctional teams: bioteam them describe how to address the commitment issue early enough in a virtual team or virtual network to minimise these games right from the start

About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors. Recognized as a leading expert in the growing area of Virtual Enterprise Networks, Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and working practices. Ken is the founder of – a research blog dedicated to how organizational teams can learn from nature’s best teams.

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