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Metagame managers: what will you do to get ahead?

In business, the metagame is all about building relationships, networking, and finding ways to get ahead. It’s about knowing who to know and how to play the game to your advantage. So, should you embrace the metagame? That’s up to you. But it’s important to be aware of it, and to understand how it works.

What is the metagame in business?

You’ll have heard of ‘playing the game’ and almost certainly know people who have taken this approach. Doing exactly what’s needed to appear authentic and hard working but, in reality, they know which strings to pull, they put disproportionate effort in when it comes to building the right relationships, they take credit where credit may not entirely be due.

They are playing the game. The proverbial game, that no-one ever admits to, but which may well be prolific among career climbers.

One of the clearest definitions of ‘the game’ appears in a book. To quote the dystopian-meets-sci-fi ‘Bearhead’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky, “This is why the people who end up in authority are generally not those focused on whatever the purpose of the community is, but those who are focused on achieving positions of authority.”

The metagame is the next step. Described by Tchaikovsky in the following way:

“A caveman in the Stone Age brings a mammoth in to show he’s a big hunter, hunting’s the game, the actual important activity that’s being judged. Og next door just bonks Thog on the head and steals the mammoth, and that’s the metagame.”

But the business metagame is nothing new. Warren Buffet stands accused of being a master at it. He acquires public companies, makes them private and then uses long-term strategies which can’t be used by competitors with shareholders demanding quarterly results. Therefore, he creates an edge that public rivals can’t match.

Leadership and the metagame

But what does this all mean? Should we embrace ‘gaming’ as a legitimate way of advancing our careers? Is it a spectrum? Do we all revert to bucking the meritocracy when we need to?

When it comes to how we achieve greatness, we are, of course, continually evolving. Consider the world just over 30 years ago: pre-internet. Then, knowledge was power, and those who hoarded it became the ‘go-to’ broker of business. Now, it’s fair to say that people no longer pay for knowledge, but instead pay for the hand-holding in implementing better and faster ways of doing things. Is that an example of game-playing becoming obsolete?

In The Leader’s Secret Code book, we refer to journey motivators: these take account of the spectrum of approaches and attitudes that influence our path to high achievement. The reason for the spectrum is that this is not just about what we do, but why we do it. Our ‘why’ links to our beliefs and our beliefs directly impact our behaviours.

Perhaps you are thinking that surely, we are about to give you the answer to whether game playing is endemic in our high achievers? But no, given the tapestry of life and business, things would never be that black and white.

Let’s focus on Control. This is one of our ‘destination beliefs’. In other words, common terms believed to define leadership, identified during our literature review and then corroborated by our sample group.

It’s possible to be a leader who uses control in a constructive way, or one who uses it in a destructive way. And, of course, there is a rainbow of styles in between. And so it comes back to our core beliefs, which the majority of society will share: the desire to be liked, to be respected, to be ethical and treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.

Beliefs drive behaviours which drive outcomes.

Does ‘game playing’ break the rules?

So, what are the rules? As far back as 500BC, Sun Tzu is quoted as saying “every battle is won before it is even fought” so who are we to judge a range of tactics designed to achieve success?

Perhaps the rules change according to the situation we are experiencing. Leaders who are riding the wave of success with their business, ticking off goals, achieving targets, seeing growth, expansion and investment can perhaps afford to be more collaborative, to take the time to allow their team to shape the direction of travel (our participative journey motivator related to control).

But what if things are now going so well? What if your business in on a downturn? Morale is low, decision-making poor as a result of a lack of confidence, both within and from stakeholders. Profits are dwindling and the writing is on the wall. Is this the time for a leader to take control (our directive journey motivator related to control)?

There will be a time in every business journey, and in every leader’s career, where each of these approaches are right. And perhaps that is our answer: a high performer needs to know when to take certain actions and how to engage their team, no matter which they choose.

Remember the outcome

One last word on the legitimacy of game-playing and the metagame in business: it may be that true success is rooted in our desire to be connected, respected and thought of as a great leader. If so, it may follow that game playing is a risky strategy. For many, it will go against ethics, especially at its most extreme, where players are only concerned with their own fulfilment, often at the expense of others.

The Leader’s Secret Code concludes that we each have our own secret code waiting to be unlocked. Your beliefs and the modelling of excellence in those who have influenced you will all play a part in your choices.

Perhaps there is no good or bad? So much is situational but one quality will always ensure longevity of leadership, and that is flexibility.

Try things for size, experiment with different approaches. In the end, you will find your own true leadership style and that has to be a win. Game, or no game.

Read ‘Creating emotionally intelligent high-performing leaders’ next. And if you’d like to speak to us about our leadership programmes you can get in touch on +44 (0)1488 658686 or email [email protected].

a man playing the game of chess at work

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