Games People Play: Courage, Psychological Safety and the SM

Some years ago there was a book called Games People Play, by Eric Berne.

The older I get the less certain I am of how people work, and what they really are.  But that people play games (and games they do not explicitly discuss or even consciously are aware of) seems probably true.

It is so easy to be arrogant and assume that we understand ourselves.  Which is not so bad.  And then to assume we understand others.  And that can be bad, in part because they may actually believe us when we say “I know better for you”.

Beware.  It is a temptation that (I think we see) almost everyone falls for.


As I look at companies, I still see widely, almost everywhere, the “power” idea.

This idea is very old.  “I am more powerful than you (and thus better) and therefore you must do what I say.”  People say this goes back 10 or 20 thousand years, that is that society was organized this way first that long ago.  I am not sure, but it does seem an old idea.

Is this idea bad for knowledge work?  I think pretty clearly and to a high degree: yes it is bad.  (I will not say completely and always bad.)

And one can see quickly that the capricious use of power can make knowledge workers feel unsafe psychologically. And therefore not tell the truth. And therefore much lower transparency. And therefore, for example, Scrum is much less effective.


The Team must make decisions quickly.  Power is one answer to that problem (the most powerful person always decides).

Decision-making is a complex subject: For today, my brief suggestion would be — let everyone in the Team talk briefly on subject X, and then let the best person on that subject decide.  I usually suggest and prefer that method.

But in the topic for today, we must acknowledge that power and decision-making are linked in many minds.


Can anyone make you psychologically safe?

Well, this is a very slippery slope.  It is a subjective state, to a large degree.  And perhaps you can make yourself feel a certain way.  But it is a very arrogant Dr. Freud who would say he can make you feel psychologically safe in two 50 minute visits.

What I would rather do is to use the Happiness Metric for the Team.  And that will necessarily include, to some degree, the feeling of psychological safety.


One also must ask people to be courageous.

A key related issue: Virtually everyone who has been in the real world for awhile has had some experience where they have seen the messenger be shot.  That is, someone told the truth and then was punished for it.  Usually painfully and more or less in public.  (Yes, almost never an actual physical murder — that was a metaphor.)  So, once burned, twice shy.

Almost everyone is, to some degree, afraid of telling the truth.

But that fear is often largely misplaced.  That is, in another company the messenger was shot.  But the accuracy in the current company is — usually — unknown.  Will the messenger be shot here?  We really don’t know, but subconsciously assume that it will happen.

We must ask them to be (more) courageous.


Let me make one personal comment.

I have had some inexperienced people try to “play with my mind”.  (Usually our minds, in some group.)  Doing mind games.  I find it amateurish, almost always.  And very annoying.  And I think many or most people do (clearly not all people).

Similarly, while I am a very strong advocate of building a team, I find most team building activities cloying and silly and ineffective.  It is so bad, I think, that most people will (if given the chance) vote ‘no’ to doing “team-building activities”.

I am NOT saying that some of the “agile games” that we do are not fun and useful.  Just be careful.  And do not be arrogant in doing them.  Example: They think “you are arrogantly trying to fix my mind.”


ScrumMasters can be many different kinds of people, each good at fixing different kinds of impediments.  The same might be said of Agile Coaches.

To me, you get more effectiveness from SMs and Coaches if you say:

  • work (with others) to get the most important impediment fixed for the Team
  • keep a Happiness Metric (which may help identify an important impediment)
  • help the Team have some fun together (reasonable fun and serious fun)
  • ask your Team to tell the truth and have some courage

Less effective would be something like this:

  • help your Team feel psychologically safe

There are similarities between the 4 bullets and the 1 bullet.  But I believe the former approach is more do-able for most people and more likely to lead to a better outcome.



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