Games People Play

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Games People Play – in the White House

Guy Gumbrell, Co-Director of Executive Education

I have for a long time found the work of Eric Berne fascinating, and his concept Transactional Analysis helpful in understanding myself and others better.  This week’s interractions between Donald Trump and his now defunct business advisory councils have brought Eric Berne very much back to mind. What I like and admire about Transactional Analysis is that it identifies the three Ego sates that exist in all of us – Parent, Child and Adult – but does not make any absolute judgement about which is more ‘worthy’ or desirable. Each state, and the behaviour associated with it, is natural and has the potential for positive impact on oneself and others. Problems in human relationships occur, according to Berne, where people get ‘trapped’ into repetitive patterns of negative communication which often stems from ‘mismatched’ ego states (e.g. one person communicating from their Parent state and the other responding from their Child state) combined with a judgemental view of the other person (e.g. “I’m OK, you’re not OK”).

What makes the mismatch more damaging over time is that neither party stops to explain why they are communicating in the way they are. So, the mutual disappointment and hurt continues. Donald Trump’s reaction to the steady stream of resignations from his advisory boards reminds me of the child at school who, finding that his supposed friends do not want to play the game according to the rules he has proposed, simply picks up his football and stomps off. “If you won’t play the game my way, there won’t be a game …”. It’s not pretty but it might be more understandable, not to mention helpful in re-building the relationship, if the child added something like “I feel I should be allowed to specify the rules since it’s my football and I invited you to join. I’m feeling hurt that you won’t accept that …”

That’s probably a big ask for a ten-year old child who’s never heard of Eric Berne nor Transactional Analysis! However, we are talking about the President of the United States and leading business leaders. The ‘mismatch’ is huge and, just as important, so is the gap in expectation of what the communication should be. Here’s a sample. First part of Merck CEO Ken Frazier’s resignation post on Twitter:

I am resigning from the President’s American Manufacturing Council. Our country’s strength comes from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs. America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.

And Donald Trump’s reply:

“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”

There is clearly a job of work needed here to help influential people break out of dreadfully unproductive and repetitive patterns of behaviour. Social media channels don’t help in this regard in that their raison d’etre is to encourage fast, in-the-moment communication. Unfortunately for social media, change and personal growth needs time, space, and non-judgemental reflection. So, if he were still alive, what might Eric Berne say to Donald Trump? I’d like to think he’d say something along the lines of:

“Give yourself some quiet time and pick up my book,  Games People Play. It’s a short book, but it could be a life-changer”

Learn more about communications in management and patterns of behaviour in our Leadership in a Technology Driven World programme.

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