The psychological games your nightmare boss plays in the office

Many nightmare bosses play psychological mind games with their colleagues.

By becoming aware that you may well be part of one of their ‘games’, then this can empower you to step away from an unhelpful or destructive interaction.

In Transactional Analysis (TA) psychotherapy, Berne identifies a vast array of psychological games people can play with each other. On a social level, each interaction or game is played out as a seemingly normal adult to adult interaction. Yet, beneath the surface, on a psychological level, hides the true identity of the two individuals playing their games – which roles they are playing and their true intent.

NOTE: In TA, we can enter into one of three roles in an interaction with another person. In very basic terms these are: a Parent role (nurturing or critical parent); an Adult role; a Child role (free-spirited or rebellious child).

Here are three ‘games’ we’ve seen played out in the workplace by nightmare bosses:


1. ‘Now I’ve Got You, You Son of A Bitch’

This is played out by someone who enjoys the discomfort of others.

Berne uses the example of a poker game, in which one P1 gets an unbeatable hand but he’s more interested in the fact P2 is at his mercy than he is in playing poker.

We’ve seen this play out in the workplace over a hotel expenses’ claim. A team member (P1) was staying overnight in a hotel after a business conference. He knows expenses are rarely checked, so given how hard he’s worked at the conference, he justifies buying extra drinks that take him over the ‘standard expenses’ allowance. But knowing how expensive the hotel is, the line manager (P2) decides to check the expenses and is indeed delighted to have caught P1 out. She calls P2 into her office and ask how the conference was, and what his evening meal was like, and did he have a few drinks to relax. She then talks about how tight budgets are and how certain individuals are being unethical with their expenses. After some time watching P1 squirm, she slams down P1’s expenses claim and demands an explanation, questioning P2’s integrity and ethics until eventually P2 pays for the extra expenses himself.

In this instance, both were playing games – the P1 by submitting the bill while knowing he’d overcharged, P2 by toying with him. Instead of negotiating in an adult way, perhaps showing a little innocent annoyance, P1 criticises team member’s character.

A parent-child dialogue is occurring beneath the surface.

2. “Why Don’t You – Yes, But…”

Person 1: “These figure don’t seem to add up.”

Person 2: “I can never seem to make these figures add up.”

P1: “Why don’t you ask Andy to help out – he’s good with figures.”

P2: “Yes, but he’s always so very busy.”

P1: “Why don’t you use the formulas in the Excel spreadsheet?”

P2: “Yes, but I’ve not been trained in Excel.”

P1: “Why don’t go on a course?”

P2: “Yes, but I don’t really have the time?”

The game goes on until finally P1 runs out of ideas and there’s silence. P2 will reject all solutions. The basis of the game is that no suggestion is ever accepted, and the P1 is never successful.

For P2, the eventual silence from P1 brings its own little pleasure – P1 is just as inadequate as me for neither you nor I can find solutions for me.

P1 is playing the Adult. P2 is playing passive aggressive through the Rebellious Child.

3.  “See What You Made Me Do!”

Person 1 (P1) is feeling unsociable and becomes engrossed in an activity that will insulate him against other people. A work colleague (P2) interrupts him while P1 is writing a report at this computer.

P2: “Do you know where John is? We’re due in a meeting together in 20 minutes.”

The interruption causes P1 to hit a wrong key on his computer and he loses his work. P1: “See what you made me do!”

This gets repeated over the years until eventually people leave P1 alone when he’s engrossed. Of course, it’s not the person interrupting but P1’s own inability to control his emotions and temper that causes him to make a mistake.

This game can soon become a way of life, rather than merely used as an occasional reaction. For instance, P1 might deferentially go along with the team’s decision is an effort not to micro-manage, and if things turn out well P1 can take the praise and say “See what a wonderful manager I am because of the freedom I give my team”. But when things turn out badly then P1 blames others with a new game: “Look What You Got Me Into!”. It’s a double-combination that’s played out not only at work but in many marriages.

P1 is playing the Rebellious Child and P2 the Adult.


Which online workshops can help you develop new tactics & avoid these games?

Realising that you’re involved in a ‘game’ is an important first step and it takes some skill in identifying the games. The real skill, however, comes in taking an adult position in all work interactions.

To find out how, take a look at Marie’s online training video courses on How to Deal with your Nightmare Boss.

If you’re looking for an online course specifically for business soft skills, take a look at our list of online classes for managers and leaders. We provide some the best online business courses for managers and leaders. If you want to become upskilled in the workplace, our online training videos for the workplace are a combination of training videos, online classes and self-completion training tools, as well tutor support.



Share This Post
Have your say!
1 5
  1. My boss certainly plays game 3!! Interesting stuff.

  2. Yeap – my manager plays all these games and more.

Leave a Reply