The UnProductive Time Games that Employees Play

istock_000011427285xsmall.jpgIt happens in every company.  Within a few months, the top notch  recruit from one of the best schools joins in the time management games that their colleagues have been practicing for years, and  before long they are operating at a mediocre level of productivity, and sometimes they are even rewarded for it.

What’s remarkable is that these games are invisible to all but  the most astute observers, and even fewer are willing to “unplug themselves” from the Matrix-like state they find themselves in.

Here are some of the unproductive games that employees quickly find  themselves sucked into that undermine corporate productivity.  I  am using the definition of a game used by Amy Jo Kim at — a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.

The Main Game: Do what you can to stay out of trouble.

While this game is one that we learned from our earliest days in school, it is one that operates  powerfully in most companies and influences every single person.

The fact that there is a competition of sorts between employees means that most are competing by trying to stay out of trouble,  which is exactly the behavior that executives and managers say they don’t want.

Yet, few companies are able to create an environment that enables employees to overcome the habit of “keeping your head down.”

When it comes to time management, it’s easy to see that there  are certain games that are important to play and win in order to move ahead.  Here are the ones I have seen.

The Ping-Pong Email Game

One of the popular games played is what I call ping-pong email. The goal is simple – make sure that you have the quickest email response time in the company.  After all, how can one do better than to make sure than people get a response in  minutes?

There are some who firmly believe that the employee who responds to email quickly is one who is sensitive to colleague’s needs, a  good team player and demonstrates excellent time management skills.

I predict that one of the tools that’s coming soon is some kind of method to quantify email responsiveness. Luckily, it  appears that no such tool exists at the moment, but I am sure that some geek somewhere is crafting the required code.

Of course, the person who wins this particular contest is also  likely to be contender for the “Most Email” title.

Some companies will take note of your prowess at these games by making note of it in your performance appraisal, and salary increase.  Heck, you can even get more money from being good at the game of Email Ping-Ping!

The C.Y.A. Email Game

This is an older game in which employees cover their ass by  “capturing” conversations in email.  Instead of walking over to have a conversation or using a phone, they use email.  If they are caught unawares and someone has a conversation by the water cooler, they simply send an email when they return to  their desks that says… “as we discussed, you are not going to do your part on the ABC project.”

The game is easier to play when everyone has a Blackberry, of course. The goal is to establish a trail of emails that establishes your  clear innocence when the s**t hits the fan.  It matters not that email takes longer to write, process and read, and that issues are  harder to resolve via email.

Email that is used to convey strong emotions inevitably creates more  problems as mismatches occur between sender and receiver.  This  produces further emails in order to resolve the new issues that the new email created.

This game reaches its crest when an issue does get raised in an  emotional way, and you are able to pull up the email trail that clearly  shows that you are not at fault.

The Head-Fake Email Game

This game is played by those who are checking email on their smartphones.  The objective is to check for email, read and  respond so quietly that no-one else notices – even if you are talking with them one-on-one.  This is a fun game  to play on dates, in weddings and in meetings.  Earning a  comment of disapproval means instant disqualification.

An important skill to learn in this game is how to nod one’s head to give the listener the appearance that they are being heard. This head-fake will work with some, but not all — only the most skilled will get away with it every time.

Ardent players of “Ping-Pong Email” eventually migrate to the “Head-Fake” Game.

The true thrill of this game is playing it successfully with  executives at higher levels of the company.

The Hide Behind Email Game

You have to conduct a difficult conversation with a prickly  colleague.  More than anything else, you want to stay out of  trouble, with him or anyone else in the company.

Rather than talk to him directly, you simply send him email. The best times are after 4pm, so that he can’t find you in  person — you have already left the office.  Hopefully, he takes the night to think about things, and any desire to do you bodily harm  has dissipated by morning.

Success is marked by getting a weak response or no response at  all.  Whether or not anything actually changes is beside the point, because you have the email to prove that you made an attempt but “he’s just so difficult to work with — not a good team player.”

You win this game when you can add this item to your performance review in the form of a kudo — e.g. “coached subordinate  successfully.”

You lose points if he pins you down in the hallway and actually succeeds in having a live conversation!

The CC: Email Game

This game has lost favor in recent years, due to its over-popularity.

It’s a simple one — conduct an email argument with someone, and  intimidate them by CC’ing additional people with each reply.

The game has been spoiled by overuse by those who add others  either too early in the conflict, or in numbers that result in lots of important people being pissed off.  Some have been known to include entire companies in their exchanges, grinding actual  work to a halt as everyone pauses to watch a public battle that  is more compelling than any game ever played on World of Warcraft.

The fun in this game comes when someone higher up in the food-chain jumps in the fray and publicly smacks down your adversary, even mildly.  (You can tell this happens when the emails stop.)

You lose major points if someone smacks you down, and minor ones if someone complains about the conversation itself.

It’s a high-stakes game that has become harder to win in recent times, so smart employees carefully use their BCC: button to achieve the same effect.

Bottom Line:  Many of these games have innocent origins by employees that are trying their best to do a good job, but have gotten lost in companies that end up with lo productivity because no-one has intervened as these  games have spiraled out of control.