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HUMAN RESOURCES

A Workplace Whodunit

You can learn a lot from games. Chess teaches strategy. Poker perfects the bluff. Ticktacktoe rehearses graceful acceptance of the inevitable draw.

You can also use games to learn about people. Here's a game that's fun to play with colleagues, though for reasons of managerial propriety you should probably play alone. Pretend your office is the setting of a murder mystery, the sort penned by Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. Now consider your employees. Which among them would you cast as detectives? Which murderers? And which murder victims?

I have played this game many times with people at all levels. Despite the great variance of personalities, tastes, and relationships within organizations, I have found very little disagreement over how employees within a single business classify their colleagues.

In an organizational unit of, say, 40 people, most are not perceived as fitting neatly into any role. (The number 40 is arbitrary. But the organization must be small enough that employees can regularly observe how most individuals interact with most others and large enough that relationships are not all intimate and thus irreducible to caricature.) There are usually just three or four detectives. They are smart, steady, and widely admired and liked--though rarely loved. Detectives tend to hold positions of considerable responsibility. Frequently they include the CEO's second in command.

When it comes to murderers and victims, things get interesting. People identify an unexpectedly large number of their fellows as potential killers. Virtually none of those dubbed murderers are perceived as violent or immoral. In fact they are often admired at least as much as detectives.

Murderers tend to fall into two categories: reserved people who are believed to have hidden depths, and shrewd, smooth political folks who seem willing to do what it takes. The latter often turn out to be star performers and invaluable sources of insight. Some of the smartest leaders and managers I know were labeled murderers by their employees--and often by themselves.

Victims are another story. In no other category is there so much consensus--perhaps because people tend to name as victims not those they personally dislike but those they perceive as universally disliked. Victims make other people feel bad about themselves. They are rude and contemptuous to underlings, smarmy and ingratiating to superiors, and arrogant and overly familiar with peers. They also tend to be borderline competent; they lack sufficient professional skills to balance a poverty of social ones.

Victims are horrible for morale. Although they aren't always bosses, they are especially noxious when they command enough authority that their bile and boorishness can't be just ignored. A friend who recently left her job told me her decision was influenced by the presence of a victim in an exalted position. "I can't respect a company that keeps a guy like that on," she said.

There's no mystery to the lessons of this game. Use your murderers. Lose your victims.

Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at lbuchanan@inc.com.

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IMAGE: Lars Leetaru
Last updated: Jun 1, 2006

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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