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The social dynamics of the workplace often provide ample examples of applied Game theory.  Whether or not individual co-workers are deliberately implementing strategies based upon research in the field is questionable. For people who possess opportunistic proclivities, it seems as if they have an implicit understanding of game theoretical strategies without being familiar with the formal concepts.  Most of the ambitious employees posed to ascend the corporate ladder are always making calculations.  Like the political process the aspiring network and form alliances. They tactfully engage in subterfuge to place another contender vying for that prized promotion at a disadvantage. Sometimes the professional “gamer” will even leave a subtle calling card. I once encountered a manager who inserted a quote from the Art of War into his signature. Feeling particularly brazen I decided to ask him if he has ever read the book. He did. It came highly recommended and was told that he likes to apply it to business.  I quickly distanced myself from this gentleman. I prefer to avoid Machiavellians.

The unfortunate reality of maintaining gainful employment is that it is a game. Even to remain employed never mind advance within the company, you will need to adhere to the rules of the game. You must adapt to the social norms of your employer. Each decision we make at work can constitute a strategy. Co-workers are merely our fellow players. The results whether it be obtaining a promotion, getting Jim fired, or flying under the radar would function as a payoff. Completely comprising the core variables of a game-theoretical definition of a game. Once we consider the incentives structure of the workplace it becomes quite clear that from an individual’s perspective it is frequently a noncooperative game. Yes, we do need to cooperate to get the process improvement project done. However, there can be various terriers of games simultaneously occurring at one time. It is important to remember only one person can fill that manager spot! The work-related “game” may be cooperative and productive while the interpersonal exchanges could be hostile.

Since there is a high potential for the implementation of noncooperative strategies, there is also a high probability for Prisoner’s Dilemmas. An individual being consumed by their agenda can make them blind to the fact that cooperation could be more effective than working against one another. Hostile strategies tend to waste resources and time. This example of misallocating resources is in of itself suboptimal. An individual’s effort and time could be re-direct completing a concrete goal. Rather than delving into the darkest depths of psychological warfare or other manifestations of non-cooperative strategies. The typical office environment is an environment rich with examples of Prisoner’s Dilemmas.

A prevalent example of a common Prisoner’s Dilemma that occurs in the work environment is job role training. It is evident that if you properly train a new co-worker that it is all around beneficial for everyone. It would even be fair to categorize properly training new employees as a positive-sum strategy. It creates less work for the trainee down the road to have an efficient and competent co-worker. It provides the trainee with a strong procedural foundation and will alleviate their frustration later. However, both “players” are prone to acting in a shortsighted manner. The trainer frustrated having the task of training the new person to their workload may do a cursory job explaining the intricacies of various processes.  There may even be a deeper-rooted rationale behind the trainer’s apathetic approach, latent hostility. The trainer may perceive the new guy as a potential threat. Either due to him exposing tactics utilized to mask a light workload or even his natural aptitude. The idea of the new employee excelling and surpassing the trainer could be a possible concern. There is also the situation of the trainer having to train their replacement in the event of layoffs (yes, it happens). The reasoning for hostility in this scenario is self-evident.

Once the trainee is faced with the less than welcoming disposition of their trainer, odds are they will also adopt a noncooperative strategy. Even going so far as to retaliate against their trainer by reporting the aggressive behavior to their manager or H.R. department. The trainee has little incentive to work with the trainer as they have already committed to being uncooperative for arguably petty reasons. Only serving to create a quid pro quo series of personal or institutional retaliations. The trainer could start a rumor about the trainee, in an attempt to damage their reputation. The trainee could continue to escalate the involvement of various tiers of management and H.R. personnel. Regardless of which methods of retaliations are deployed by either party, no one is truly better off. Time and effort have been squandered through the course of the petty bickering. The new employee still is lacking adequate training. The trainer being too shortsighted to see that properly training their new co-worker would effectively lighten their workload downstream.

7 thoughts on “Prisoner’s Dilemmas- Part II: Workplace Training

    1. The incentives structure is completely distorted.
      One of the few jobs I can think of that avoids this dynamic are call-center jobs. Generally, there is a designated corporate trainer. You virtually live and die solely on your own merits.

      Unfortunately, I came to this epiphany after years of getting screwed over by co-workers. I would always end up with the “mean work-mom” as a trainer. Typically a pedantic and insecure middle-aged woman, who desperately grasping to the idea that they are an asset to the company.

      I only we should be value-free in our analysis of social phenomenon. However, this is a PD scenario I have personally experienced multiple times over. I do apologize for the lack of objectivity.

      Liked by 1 person

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