Anyone who argues that corporate life isn’t a game clearly has never played table-top adventure games. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that serving in a management role in a modern corporation is a lot more like playing a frustrating game of Dungeons & Dragons than you’d probably expect.
Imagine that you’re the hero in an epic fantasy adventure – Lord of the Rings-style. You’re standing proudly defiant atop a hill, surrounded on all sides by furious orcs. Your fellow heroes lie spent and bloody at your feet. As the orcs build up the courage to charge, you know that there’s only one way to save yourself: you’ll have to blast all of the orcs at once. With grim determination, you prepare your most powerful offensive spell: the dreaded fireball. As the orcs start advancing up the hill, you begin chanting the cryptic words of power and bind the universe’s magical energy to your will…
Which raises the question: what exactly are those ‘cryptic words of power’ anyway? Depending on the medium in which the scene takes place, we’ll probably never know. In video games, the spell effects just happen. This is probably because it would be way too expensive to have all of the game’s voice actors record every single ‘magic phrase’ needed to add a verbal component to every in-game spell effect. In television and movies, the words usually get ignored in order to show off the visual effects of the ‘terrible spell’ as quickly as possible. In books and visual media, the viewer or reader can’t argue with the author’s presentation of the world. It’s a one-way storytelling experience.
Then there’s two-way storytelling. That’s an altogether different animal. In tabletop games, a spell’s ‘cryptic words of power’ are rarely ever codified – all that’s set in stone is that a wizard is required to speak some mandatory magic words every time she casts certain spells. What’s worse is that certain game systems require more than just the ‘magic words’ trope. In classic Dungeons & Dragons (and its spiritual successor Pathfinder), the casting of a fireball spell requires not only magic words (verbal components) but also mysterious hand gestures (somatic components) and a ball of bat guano mixed with sulphur (material components). So, if you exhaust your tactical bat poop supply too soon, you may have all the ‘magic energy’ you need, but you won’t be able to release it. 
Funny how much life as a manager in a modern corporation mirrors a fantasy adventure game, isn’t it? If you think I’ve gone crazy with that comparison, consider how these factors are equally important in both real-world management and fantasy magic gameplay:
- Everything that you’re allowed to do is dictated by rulebooks. Those rulebooks are either shockingly dense or woefully inadequate. Either way, if you don’t follow the rules exactly, your opponent can counter whatever you try to do.
- The rulebooks often come in many different editions. Even if you follow the rulebooks exactly, using the wrong edition guarantees that your opponent can block your action.
- Even if you have the right edition of the rulebooks, there are usually so many additions, expansions, modifications and official interpretations to them that the rules often wind up contradicting themselves – leaving your actions vulnerable to loopholes and ambiguity.
- Often, the rules don’t achieve their intended result. The rulebooks were written for contexts that no longer make sense, and require archaic measures that interfere with your ability to accomplish (what should be) very simple tasks.
- Lastly, the rulebooks are used primarily to resolve disputes between players when one attempts to attack or thwart another player, hence the need for a rules arbiter. In fantasy games, that’s your classic dungeon master. In the cubicle farm, that’s either the head of human resources or some board-certified suit down in legal.
- If the arbiter is experienced, knowledgeable and fair, then the spirit of the rules usually determines the outcome based on the company’s desire for fairness.
- If the arbiter is inexperienced, ignorant, incompetent and/or biased, then even a perfectly-argued case will get fouled up beyond all recognition by loopholes.
Go on. Try and tell me that your company’s personnel discipline systems don’t work this way. Nearly every company that I’ve either worked for or consulted to has suffered from this syndrome. I’ve heard the same complaint hundreds of times in the public and private sectors alike: ‘It’s impossible to fire anyone for misconduct here.’ many places I’ve visited, those complaints aren’t necessarily wrong.
I study institutional behaviour and organisational dynamics, so I understand how institutions can wrap themselves in so much well-meaning red tape that they can become irredeemably dysfunctional. New companies tend to create HR rulebooks only after an employee has done something termination-worthy. They write rules to keep the Bad Thing from happening a second time. Over time, those collections of rules grow organically until they become unwieldly, messy and self-contradictory nightmares akin to a physics textbook written by H.P. Lovecraft. This is natural. The authors rarely set out to define a comprehensive system that covers all possible misconduct.
Since it’s often easier to fly by flapping your arms vigorously than it is to change a large company’s body of esoteric HR lore, the best survival strategy for a leader is to read whatever’s already there. Learn the rules! Accept them for what they are (even when they’re ridiculous), then figure out how to use them to accomplish your objectives. Back when I was a military unit commander, I taught this approach to all of my subordinate leaders. I kept a binder on my desk with tabbed, indexed and highlighted copies of all three relevant disciplinary actions rulebooks – and I’d read them all multiple times. I strongly recommended that all of my peers and subordinate leaders do likewise. 
It’s the same principle in play as reading the rules for a tabletop game before you start to play. If you know what the designers expected and understand the tools that they gave you for resolving disputes, you can play the game effectively… and you can counter other players’ attempts to cheat. Does this matter? Of course it does! In both games and workgroups, someone always tries to cheat. It’s inevitable: someone is always asking, ‘How can I get a competitive advantage over my peers?’ If there’s a grey area anywhere in the rules, some overly-clever git will try to leverage it. As representatives of management, it’s our job to confront those attempts to twist the organisation’s rules and reset everyone’s understanding of what is (and is not) allowed.
Along those lines, I made it a point to quiz aspiring managers on their understanding of the organisation’s adverse action response protocols during their interview. Before I delegated any day-to-day authority to a new supervisor, I wanted to be sure that he or she was properly prepared to thwart attempted misconduct as soon as it manifested. That it was going to occur was inevitable – making sure the company dealt with it effectively was our responsibility.
One common interview tactic that we employed for our civil service managers took the form of a two-part question. First, we’d ask the candidate if they were familiar with the organisation’s rules on documenting civilian employee shenanigans. If they said ‘no’, we’d skip to the next question. We knew that the applicant would need training and mentoring before they were ready to run their own work centre. If they said ‘yes’, though… we made them prove it.
I’d point to one of the hiring panel members and say, ‘Mr Smith here just showed up to work late for the third time this month. He also reeks of alcohol, such that you feel he’s unfit to work. I want you to write up the problem for his official personnel folder, so that you’re giving me the documentation that I’ll need as the next-higher level supervisor to take disciplinary action on him.’ Then I’d slide a piece of blank copy paper across the table with a sharpened pencil and a Biro.
In order to fully pass our challenge, the applicant had to understand our organisation’s exotic and outdated personnel management rules. Even though our high-tech organisation had more than 10,000 employees, it still functioned under rules that hadn’t been substantively updated since the late 1970s. Full marks were only given for the challenge if all six elements were completed correctly:
- First, the supervisor had to write on the page in landscape (not traditional portrait) orientation.
- Second, she had to write in pencil (using ink was forbidden, because certain types of negative entries were required to be expunged from the employee’s records… with an eraser).
- Third, she had to start the new entry with the date and time of the counselling.
- Fourth, she had to fully describe the employee’s conduct using the language of each offence the way that it was written in the disciplinary actions rulebook.
- Fifth, she had to end the entry with the specific (magic) phrase: ‘Management is considering disciplinary action.’
- Finally, she had to initial the entry herself, and then get the ‘Mr Smith’ character to place his initials at the end of the entry (in exactly that order).
Why was all this necessary? Because our HR system wouldn’t allow any employee misconduct records to ‘count’ for a punishment or dismissal unless all six of those non-intuitive steps were performed exactly right. Mess up on any of them, and the entry would be invalidated… and worse, couldn’t be used later for any other purpose. The employee would get away with the misconduct, management would be humiliated, and the other employees in the group would realize that they, too, could get one over on the company thanks to management’s inability to discipline workers.
Should our HR have acted this way? Or course not. Their ‘requirements’ for a disciplinary action were dreadfully obsolete. I mean, seriously… mandating handwritten entries in pencil in a paper folder? In the internet age? The ‘requirements’ designed to make managers fail. HR’s rigid insistence on following every single archaic requirement in exactly the right order in order to initiate the simplest of corrective actions crippled management’s ability to maintain good order and discipline.
Why did so damned many folks in HR make life difficult for the company’s managers? Because they were afraid. They were terrified of having an employee termination decision ‘blow up in their face’ (so to speak) like a mis-cast fireball spell. They didn’t want upper management to blame them for botching a crucial employee removal action, especially when the terminated employee might sue. So, many personnelists shifted all of the risk down to the lone managers by refusing to take any responsibility for supporting an adverse action decision. If anything went wrong, it would be assumed to be the initiating manager’s fault.
To be fair, not all HR folks are like that. The best personnelists are the ones that dig into the company’s rulebooks with a scholar’s obsessive glee. They know their job cold, and they’re not afraid to take on some responsibility for making (or for supporting) a difficult decision. Great HR employees are an absolute treasure. They’re spectacular assets that make management’s role possible, just as the weak ones make management’s role impossible. Unfortunately, weak HR folk are just as ubiquitous as weak managers: they’re everywhere.
The main difference between playing a fantasy game and getting paid to manage a workgroup is that playing a game is entirely optional. It’s a fun leisure time activity. Manager work, meanwhile, is just that – work. Unless you’re sitting on a metaphorical dragon’s hoard of your own, you have to work in order to live. Therefore, you’re constantly caught between the wise-acres pushing the envelope below you and the frightened HR gnomes above you. As the group’s manager, you’re the one that has to Make Things Right. Most of the time, that means delivering a gentle reprimand. Some times, it means unleashing the career-obliterating fireball on an unrepentant, recidivist, anti-authoritarian malcontent. 
That being said, the best tactic for surviving a management assignment – or for holding off a charge of angry orcs in a tabletop game – is to read and thoroughly understand all the game’s rules before you need to employ them. Know exactly what-all you have to do in order to succeed and then prepare accordingly. Leave the rules arbiter with no choice but to back your play. If you don’t, you might just find yourself surrounded by enemies, cut off from allied support and fresh out of bat poop when the stakes are do-or-die.
 Strangely, I’ve never seen a fantasy game declare which species of bat makes the best guano for crafting a fireball spell. You’d think that there would at least be some minor special effects differences between a fireball created with the droppings of flying fox versus those of a vampire bat.
 Those three rulebooks were the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Texas Code of Military Justice and Technician Personnel Regulation 752 – Discipline and Adverse Action.
 …and should never have to pay for their own drinks as far as I’m concerned.
 I’d like the phrase ‘office orc’ to catch on. Any takers?
POC is Keil Hubert, email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.