Territorial games

Twice this week I've heard stories from people about their experiences at the hands of managers who have been playing what are known as 'territorial games'. These are protective behaviors which people play to preserve their organisational 'territory' – that is the power or resources they have that they are not willing to share with others.

Story one involves a person who was told one week that she was doing very well and that she would be in line for a permanent position – she was a contract staff member. Her manager at the company gave a very good review of her to the contract agency that had placed her. The following week the same manager asked to see her and to her amazement started yelling at her, saying that she was lazy, incompetent, she hadn't done anything that was expected of her and he didn't want to see her in his office again. Talking this over she repeatedly said that she had seen him get enraged with other staff but this was the first time he had turned on her. She had no idea what caused his change of heart.

Story two is about a person who was hired to do an events management role. She reports to someone who is unwilling to give guidance on what he is expecting in terms of job performance, job objectives, and ways of doing the work. The person is finding it very hard to self-start in a new role without this support. She's doing what she thinks is the right thing, only to be told that it isn't and when she asks for clarification she doesn't get it.

Annette Simmons wrote a very readable book, Territorial Games: understanding and ending turf wars at work that opens the first chapter with the wonderful, Thomas A Stewart, quote "A turf-conscious manager [can] grind genius into gruel". In it there's a survey "Understanding Your Territorial Drive" that lists ten territorial games and asks you to note which are used by you, used by your boss, used by your peers and used on you. The ten are:

  • Occupation: Marking territory; maintaining an imposing physical presence; acting a gatekeeper for vital information; monopolizing relationships, resources or information
  • Information manipulation: With-holding information, putting a 'spin' on information, covering up, or giving false information
  • Intimidation: 'Growling' yelling, staring someone down, scaring off, or making threats (veiled or overt)
  • Powerful alliances: Using relationships with powerful people to intimidate, impress, or threaten others; using name dropping; making strategic displays of influence over important decision makers
  • Invisible wall: Actively instigating circumstances or creating counterproductive perceptions so that an agreed-upon concept is, if not impossible to implement, very, very difficult to implement

  • Strategic non-compliance: Agreeing up front to take action and having no intention of taking that action, or agreeing just to buy time to find a way to avoid taking that action
  • Discredit: Using personal attacks or unrelated criticisms as a way of creating doubt about another person's competence or credibility

  • Shunning: Subtly (or not so subtly) excluding an individual in a way that punishes him or her; orchestrating a group's behaviour so that another is treated like an outsider
  • Camouflage: Creating a distraction, emphasizing the inconsequential, or deliberately triggering someone's anxiety buttons just to distract him or her
  • Filibuster: Using excessive verbiage to prevent action, out-talking any objectors at a meeting, talking until the time for discussion is exhausted or simply wearing others down by out-talking them

When I did this exercise with a group one day I was very amused to hear one person saying that when he came to the workshop he only knew one game but now he knew nine others – not quite the point! However, he also suggested that the exercise could, if done carefully, be used as an icebreaker with a leadership team to surface the games individuals played so that others could call them out when they saw them in action. His theory being that making the games transparent would mean that they would lose their potency.