“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston
“Powerful alliances” is a territorial game humans have played from the beginning of time. But when people start treating friends and natural allies like bargaining chips to win a territorial game in ways that silence others – they cross a line. It is human nature to cultivate connections with people who seek the same goals we seek to use their power, a voice, or connections to step in when they can help. Back when I did the original research, technology had yet to invent platforms and industries to dedicated to automating powerful alliances. The gig economy has forced many people to treat friends like assets. It makes me sad. But it’s not new. The minute work life is characterized as a battle then accumulating allies, spies, confederates, pawns, re-tweeters, likes, links, and moles reduces friendships to bargaining chips.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Blindly recruiting other people to play games on your “tribe’s” behalf as a way to silence, disable, or crush perceived opposition is effective but there are consequences. Once friendships are stripped of intimacy, loyalty, kinship, moral solidarity, and empathetic feedback and replaced with economic reasoning and score-keeping we lose the social glue that holds us together.
The game called Powerful Alliances is the best example of how a territorial game can be used for good or evil (although game players always believe they are on the side of good). A big picture view of politics today shows tight groups of liberals and conservatives deploying every powerful alliance they can to “win” battles that can never be decisive. The fatal flaw in pursuing wins instead of balancing continuums is that choosing one “side” or the other prevents the healthy toggle back and forth between contrasting but vital moral paradoxes that work best in tandem. Territorial game players dont seem to understand there are no “wins” involving paradoxes of human life (safety/freedom, individual/group, relationships/rules, etc) that could possible be decisive without dire consequences. Worse, it divides the resulting “tribes” to the point alliances are no longer moderated by social norms of discretion, dialogue, compromise and deep trust.
People who “mobilize” their friends into contacts for economic advantage don’t intend to contribute to the global loss of social trust we now experience, but they do. Like everyone else, I hope to attract powerful alliances too. But only with people who genuinely think my work makes a contribution to the collective wellbeing of us all. Likewise, I will continue to share and promote your work when it speaks to my soul and helps us lead the business and political environment back to collaboration, mutual respect, and reciprocal generosity. It’s all I care about. If I can help, let me know.
But please let’s stop reducing human relationships to “contacts” – it’s killing unconditional generosity and cultivating cynicism we cannot afford.
- Information Manipulation Game
Tweak the numbers and you tweak the decision. Edit video and you edit context. Control the narrative and you control what information seems relevant. Truth is the first casualty whenever we assume that everyone manipulates information so we have to as well….since “that’s how the game is played.”
“Their response [when tweaking numbers] is that they’re doing what the system allows them to do. They feel, ‘I’m within the rules. I’m applying the rules to my benefit but I’m still playing within the rules.’”
When we characterize work, government, or other personal interactions as a competitive game we invoke game “rules.” As long as politics is considered a battleground, war rules apply and truth is the first casualty. Why not review the rules with Sun Tzu’s Art of War? The battle metaphor is a disaster for truth seekers. In a war/game, withholding information, promoting disinformation, suprise attack and active misdirection are not just acceptable but honored as good tactics. Whenever I facilitate high-level budget meetings, I always ask the question – how do you calculate your budget requests? Eventually I hear, “we figure how much we need and double it, or add 30%,” or whatever distortion each group’s norms justify. When I ask:
“How can we possibly make good decisions if our norm is to lie to each other?”
…it is usually the first time the group has asked themselves this question. The resulting conversations reveal the obstacles we impose on ourselves every time we characterize a budget meeting as a battle or a game. We play by rules that guarantee to distort our collective understanding of Big T Truths. Truth is the first casualty the minute we unconsciously expect there will be winners and losers, because it means that helping the other side tell the truth is the fastest track to becoming a loser.
Granted our judicial system wouldn’t work if lawyers were asked to collaborate – but there is no reason this adversarial approach should be our primary method for seeking Truth. While there are laws about sharing information in the judicial system, few lawyers call attention to evidence that helps the other side. An adversarial system for seeking truth incentivizes a battle mentality that rarely assembles various points of view into one big picture. We limit our truth to the one who wins, rather than the one who has the most integrity, experience, or good intentions.
“Another example is where data can be selectively manipulated. That’s a strong word for what I’m describing, but I’ve seen instances where selective use of data can basically get you to a different conclusion. They are protecting their own territory. The conclusion they are going for – let’s assume we are looking at a particular feature on a product – it’s a strong desire from one group in the company to have this feature. Another group…may not feel it’s that important…It becomes a judgment call. You are adding cost, adding weight. The one that wants the feature will tend to collect data and present data that would enhance the attractiveness of that feature. On the other hand, other people will be tweaking the numbers the other way.”
People (and now, algorithms) that assemble, interpret, format, and relay information into “meaningful” chunks edit out what seems unimportant (from their point of view) in order to feature what is important (from their point of view).
“So you’ve got a subculture that is trying to go for their optimum, which is counter to the big-picture good…What actually happens in the interchange from human to human is that they refuse to look at the big picture. They tell you flat out in a meeting… I’ve made the request that we look at the big picure and their response back [to me] is that they don’t get measured to do that, not paid to do what. ‘I’m only measured on meeting this objective and that’s what I’m talking to you about.'”
Any “fight” for truth means welcoming truths we dont like as well as the truths we do like. Denying unpleasant realities doesn’t make them untrue, it only distorts our ability to find solutions. That’s what I meant when I titled my last book “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.” I didn’t mean to suggest it was a guide to crush someone else’s truth with a truth you like better. I thought it would be obvious to those who study storytelling that the real wins are only found in Big T Truths. I guess I need to keep working on that.
- Camouflage Game (Wild Goose Chase)
The new forms of this game have the potential to twist truth in ways that kill ideas that matter far more than just killing the research project described in the quote below:
“Hal was there only as a sophisticated untracker in groups. Untrackers get you going down the primrose path…you feel comfortable going…the whole way through. In order to avoid implementation of my [research] idea, Hal said it sounded great but ‘we need…to get the…clinical investigation committee to approve the scientific merit.’ And so on and so forth….What he knew [was] that if you have a bunch of fairly bright people…you can make it sound plausible…. what he said was absolutely right on target, but the intent…was not scientific merit. [It was to block the research.]
The term “untracker” is an excellent way to define a camouflage game player. This game is a common slapstick comedy routine. The Three Stooges played it all the time. One of them would point and yell, “Look over there!” and when the target looked in that direction the “untracker” could steal whatever he wanted while they weren’t looking. You may have played it yourself without malicious intent. It’s what siblings do to get the last cookie. But when the stakes are high, involving difficult truths, it’s not funny.
“It’s the wild goose chase. If they send you off on enough of them, you won’t think the thing to be hunted is in their territory. It appears so credible…’If I can get you away from my territory then I win.’”
From the original research in 1997, it was clear that most untrackers hid their misdirection in the camouflage of support: just one more additional step, an opportunity we should wait for, adding one more expert. Sometimes the tactic is to get a group to bite off way more than they can chew so they choke on their own good intentions before their program has a chance to invade protected territory. Frequently it works so well people really believe the game player’s insistent claims of positive intent.
Capitalizing on someone’s insecurity doubles the game player’s ability to create confusion. The goal is for emotions to hijack the rational mind. Calling attention to someone’s embarrassing past, a mistake, or asking in the middle of their presentation “what’s that brown thing hanging out of your nose?” is enough to steal momentum or stop a speaker dead in her tracks. The game player almost always pretends they are trying to help. In particular, to help us avoid some perceived disaster they intend to illustrate in vivid detail. Because the fastest way to misdirect attention is to find a threat and supersize it.
“So it ranged from discounting to actually creating perceptions of threats. A new program was positioned to be potentially dangerous to the welfare of the company in order to keep it from effecting the way a group of managers liked to do business.”
When game players point out multiple threats and escalate perceptions of dire consequences they can make a group so dizzy with confusion the group is much more likely to defer to an authority (usually the game player) to save them. This game incorporates the art of illusion – make the threat seem big enough and scary enough and no one has time to think or to do the hard thing.
Like all of the games, the Camouflage Game works because people participate. When we look “over there” and stop paying attention to what we know is true, we are the ones who make the game work. And the most susceptible groups are always those of us with tough dilemmas we can avoid indefinately every time we agree to “Look over there!” Rather than making hard decisions and making the painful sacrifices the situation demands we opt for rubber necking someone else’s disaster. I suspect this hasn’t changed.
3. The Filibuster Game
“… we were just wasting our time. No one wanted to be the one to tell him he was full of crap so they just sat and listened to him ramble on. After all, no one could disagree with the fact that we needed to act more like a team. But wasting all this time talking about our values and customer service didn’t solve the problem. Everyone walked out of that meeting and went right back to the same old, same old.
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Now it’s happening on a national level and it’s no longer an irritation but a real threat. This quote above describes a meeting that happened over 20 years ago, but it’s happening again today, except game players now have “scaled” the filibuster game with technology that floods the airwaves with talking heads and images designed to activate clicks instead of collaboration.
The Filibuster Game has long been codified as a tactic in Congress: talk long enough and it prevents everyone else from telling his or her story. Today technological variations of the filibuster game include apps that push notifications to the point we don’t have time to look for verification. Particularly if the “news” we get affirms our own goodness and blames those “idiots” for not understanding what’s real.
You aren’t going to like this but in experiments, peace makers sabotage their ability to confront the Filibuster game if they get stuck believing that a Filibuster game player knows exactly what he is doing and why. Nope. Most of the time, these game players genuinely think they are heroes protecting a value that the rest of us want to “destroy.” Calling a game player stupid (accurate or not) only doubles the energy he or she gives to the game. Just to be clear, even those game players who are intentionally playing the filibuster game draw energy from your accusations. The only way a game player stops playing games is if he/she can admit to him/herself in the privacy of his/her own mind: “I’ve been acting like an asshole. I think Im making things worse. I want to change for my own reasons” It’s not easy, not particuarly gratifying, but focusing on the games and not the people works faster – not 100% of the time because nothing works 100% of the time. But it works with small groups, so surely there is a larger scale approach.
IMO, I think we need to stop fighting each other and start fighting the games people play with the truth. We need checks and balances for airtime that is currently for sale to the highest bidder.
Most people who play the Filibuster Game don’t realize they are doing it. Fear and anxiety create a knee jerk physiological impulse they just can’t control. All they know is that whatever you have to say distresses them, and they feel much better when they are talking instead of you. They will talk about anything except what you want to discuss. In corporate meetings the bluster mouth playing the filibuster game runs out the clock so other agenda items are never addressed. Filibuster is a fire hose of rhetoric that is not meant to communicate but to dominate.
This next quote was from a man describing a meeting, but you can imagine how this has translated to dominating media with loud engaging rhetoric that drowns out other stories.
In meetings when they get to the point where the gloves are off, it becomes very, very loud. The loudest and the most eloquent … He could make you listen, even though he was on the other side. He could compel you to listen by his rhetoric…You knew he was a snake. You knew full well…that what you were hearing was but a tip of his intent, what he was saying was only a portion of what he wanted you to hear. You know that what came before you on the table did not represent all that there was.
The filibuster game controls what we see as “True” by blocking out the stories deemed dangerous to a game player’s “preferred narrative.” Some even label these other people’s stories as “anti-stories” and intentionally distract, block, nullify, or sideline those who are willing to risk telling the emperor he has no clothes.
Since we have a finite time amount of time to attend to different points of view, any media that fills our attention to capacity with a single story steals time from tough issues that arise when we admit there are at least 4 or 5 points of view, that may piss us off, but still need to be addressed. When the flood of “something else, anything else” swirls within a media outlet it creates echo chambers (filibuster bubbles) designed to protect listeners from self-examination.
“People want to hang on to what they’ve got…so they generate so much data that it’s impossible to counteract.”
A flood of data makes it seem as if the problem we need to solve is to find a faster way to understand the data when solutions are much more likely to be found by sharing stories from all points of view, finding a way to walk a mile in the shoes of someone who knows what you don’t know, listening with empathy, generating mutual curiosity, or dialoging about Big T Truths. This doesn’t happen unless game players somehow experience an emotional state that makes being vulnerable seem wise. Attacking game players is satisfying but counterproductive. The trick is to get them to tell themselves the truth.
In my own experiements this rarely happens in isolation, but can be achieved in face-to-face group dialogue.
BTW, my definition of Big T truths: human paradoxes than sound like opposites but are actually two poles that must be balanced in the middle. We balance helping individuals AND the collective, depending on rules AND relationships, and investing in safety AND freedom. For instance, the golden rule “treat others as you wish to be treated,” plots a middle way between my wants and your wants.