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Mintzberg's Political Games


Explanations > Behaviors > Games >  Mintzberg's Political Games

The games | So what?


Henry Mintzberg is one of the main business gurus, in particular in the realm of strategy. He described a set of political games. Note how most of these are about building power in various areas, and how more than one game can be going on at the same time and with the same people.

The games

Insurgency game

Revolution from the bottom. Much beloved of Trades Unions and those who feel the weight of authority. Often has a transactional child -> parent basis.

Counter-insurgency game

Play by the authorities as they fight back against insurgents. Very much a parent -> child basis. Between them they play many other games within this field, such as 'Catch me if you can', Blame games and the 'Poor me' game.

Sponsorship game

Building power through attaching oneself to those who can help you in the future. The general deal is that the lower-down people get to be able to call on the higher-up people, who in turn have a loyal servant who keeps their ears to the ground and so on.

Alliance-building game

Building power through peer networks. Note how this is played horizontally through the organization vs. the vertical game of Sponsorship.

Empire-building game

Played particularly by managers on their way up the organization, building their power base. Internal competition then is between complete fiefdoms rather than individuals. This is very useful if you are playing a war game.

Budgeting game

Budgeting often has a clear rules and this game is about getting the most money you can, typically by asking for too much with the knowledge that you will get only a part of what you asked for. More than any other game, this is zero-sum, because when I get the money, you don't.

Expertise game

This is played by people with expert power, where they manage their knowledge and skills more for their own gain than for that of the company. For example, they will only give out information or help those who can help them back in the future. Thus is can be played together with other games.

Lording game

This is played with the power of one's position, for example where a senior manager assembles his staff and makes pronouncements, sending them off to do his or her bidding (which may, of course, not be in the interests of the company).

Line vs. staff game

This is the game between line managers who are faced with the day-to-day working of the organization and the staff advisors who seek for example to spread best practices and common working procedures. The staff often have no direct authority, which allows the line managers to refuse or resist.

Rival camps game

When Empire-building turns into an us-vs-them game, typically when there are two main camps, then it can turn into all-out war. This often happens between departments, such as manufacturing and research, marketing and sales, etc. where there are different expertise, goals and interests and it is easy to point the finger over the fence.

Strategic candidates game

This happens when there are possible plans in the offing and groups of people cluster around these ideas. In a way, it is the ideas that are fighting one another.

Whistle-blowing game

This is where an insider leaks information (perhaps to the press) or when somebody names the 'dead elephant' in the middle of the table. When the emperor is told that he has no clothes, it is normal that he fights back, so this is a dangerous game to play and can be done due to morals, naivety or with specific political intent, such as to discredit a rival.

Young Turks game

This is often played as the 'thrusting young men' game where testosterone rules and aggression is the major tool. It also appears in leadership challenges and attempts to change strategic direction.

So what?

If you are in organizations where these are going on, you can play to win or get out of the game. The first task, as ever, is to spot what is going on so you can make these choices.

See also

Blame Game, 'Catch me if you can' Game, 'Clever me' Game, 'Poor me' Game, War Game, Status Game

Annette Simmons (1998). Territorial Games, NY: Amacom

Mintzberg, H. (1989). Mintzberg on Management: Inside our Strange World of Organizations, New York: Free Press

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