Communication skills turning managers into leaders

Playing games: Finite or infinite?

Does the communication “game” you’re engaged in have a known number of players, a specific set of rules and an objective? If not - beware - it may be a time-consuming infinite talk game.

The whole idea of Card Talk is focused on communication as a game.  As we communicate, we must select at least one card to play. Hopefully, it’s a card that advances our agenda.

But what about the “game” nature of Card Talk? When applying Card Talk concepts, we label a communication exchange with a “game” title such as Decision Making or Negotiating or Joking Around.

If we can’t label the game we’re playing during a communication exchange, we’re often stuck. We have no idea what topics are appropriate and which talk cards are needed to achieve our goals.

Recently a friend recommended that I watch a video by Simon Sinek focusing on games:

In the video Sinek makes a distinction between finite and infinite games. Finite games have a known number of players, a specific set of rules, and a known objective that determines a winner or loser.

Baseball is a finite game. It has nine players who take the field and play; it has a specific set of rules that both define the game and regulate what’s fair or unfair.

Infinite games have an unknown number players, no specific rules and no identifiable objective.  The goal of infinite games is simply continuing the game.  These games only end when people get tired of playing them and walk away.

Casual Conversation is an infinite game. People gather to chat about anything of interest. There is no winner or loser, and the game can go on for as long as people like.

But Decision Making is more of a finite game. When we call a meeting to decide between specific proposals, a known number of players participates, there are rules about what comments are appropriate and which are out-of-bounds, and there is a specific objective.  When that decision is made, the game is over.

I was the Faculty Grievance Officer for Michigan State University for four years.  The office was set up to help resolve faculty complaints against administrators. The focus was on dispute resolution, or problem solving.

This mission is more of a finite game in that there is a specific objective in mind (resolving the problem) and a set of rules for how to do that. So, I was biased to assume that when someone came to visit me, they were also playing the finite Problem Solving Game rather than something else.

In most cases, that was true. But many folks who came to the Grievance Office wanted to play an infinite game like Stirring up Drama or Making People Respect Me. These games have no specific players, rules or objectives.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell that people are playing infinite games when they actually tell you they’re interested in solving “the problem” even though they have a lot of trouble articulating “the problem.”

On many occasions, I was sucked into these infinite games thinking that at some point a finite problem solving game would emerge. In these instances I was less effective in my job because I didn’t recognize what game people wanted to play, and I was unable to convert them to a finite game.

The point is: Don’t get sucked in!  Understand what game you’re playing and whether it’s a finite or an infinite game.  If it’s finite, then structure the game to be effective at it, and win (e.g., make a good decision).

If it’s really infinite, then know that you’re in for a long ride unless you make a deliberate exit.  Good luck!


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