Games People Play was a book written by Eric Berne in the 60s. A bestseller, it introduced us to the way that people adopt roles in the ‘play’ of their lives. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and ‘Boy Wizard’ are reflective of our society’s encouraging girls to be endearing and boys to be clever. [If you want more on that find your way to Soraya Chemaly’s brilliant 10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.] But our role-playing goes beyond gender stereotyping.
We learn our roles by watching our parents; by finding a behavior that defends us from attack; or exploits opportunity. How many of you watched your parents when they were ticking you off, and were swearing (silently) that you would never do that to your children – only to listen with horror to the same words and phrases pouring out of your own mouth 20 years later?
But we also invent our own roles. Entering Big School at eleven ‘David’ decided to impress his teachers (and defend himself against criticism) by looking serious all the time. 30 years later he landed a job, leading a change programme, that needed him to look and sound enthusiastic. He needed to be taught a new role. He couldn’t change – and failed.
‘Sally’ greeted the arrival of a sister when she was three by doing everything she could to regain the sole attention that her parents had given her till then. In later life her approval seeking behaviour made her great at selling. Promotion to managing a sales team meant she had to share the spotlight. She changed and thrived.
‘Christine’ arrived at Big School (lots can happen at that time in our lives) to find that she was a lot brighter than her classmates. Brighter at that age just feels different and different isn’t what most ten year olds want. So she covered up, played nice and hesitant (didn’t put her hand up with the right answer). 30 years later the HR department of the large Quango she worked at wanted her to take training in ‘assertiveness’. Instead, with a bit of help, she realized that her behavior was a game and she could now dispense with it.
The real Christine that emerged was rewarded by a doubling of her empire when a colleague went on maternity leave. Six months after that, she got a better job [see my July 18 blog] as a director at the kind of organization that everyone wants to work for.
We all learn roles, and we should have portfolios of them. Just realize that they are the games we play – and don’t let one role take charge. [If you don’t know your favourite ‘game’ – your friends will tell you!]