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A Primer on Playing the Game

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Editor's note: This article is a continuation of last week's "Ask Dr. Clemmons" commentary entitled, " The Game."

As outlined in my last column, playing "the game" in your work life can reap many benefits--that is, if you do it correctly. As a reminder from my last column, "the game" is the politicization of work life and its associated consequences. The following tips are designed to help you understand "the game" better, so that you recognize it when you see it and are able to respond accordingly. In addition, these tips should be useful to you if you are struggling with your own career issues.

Tip #1:The game was not set up for you or your success.

The game was established many moons ago, long before you and I were on the scene. Therefore, playing the game is definitely a learned skill. For people of color and women especially, playing the game can be quite a painful encounter simply because of the lack of experience in playing it. As a person of color, you are lucky to even realize that a game exists, much less have had experience in playing it! The sooner you realize that you are probably entering unknown territory when you start playing the game, the better.

In fact, the game was set up for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Therefore, you would be wise not to spend any time beating yourself up if you have missteps. When you have a lapse of common sense or a thought that makes you think that you can change the game or alter it to lead to your ultimate success, just realize that the odds are slim to none. Believe me, many of us before you have tried, to no avail. I believe that the reason for this lack of improvement in the essence of how the game is played is that it is too powerful a tool for the select few, so they make it a point to resist change--even if it sometimes backfires on them. The game is not set up for you or your success, so please don't be surprised when your needs are not addressed. Just learn how to maneuver through it in a way that does not impede your progress.

Tip #2Don't expect the game to make sense.

You will be amazed at how playing the game leads to many work-related tasks which defy common sense and/or require you to suspend all disbelief to accomplish anything meaningful. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to change the game itself, so I suggest you go along with the silliness. Otherwise, YOU will be singled out as a rebellious person, the agitator, or the non-team player. Just ask Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who was recently booted from NBC's The Apprentice. In my estimation, she caught the foot simply because she did not play the game very well. She talked a good game, but her execution was flawed.

Unfortunately, speaking your mind as a woman of color is always shunned and never recognized within the rules of play, so you have to be a bit more savvy about how and what you say, that is, if you want to win the game. As in her case, not playing the game can lead to dire consequences. Whether you are an academic scientist or a businessperson in the corporate world, playing the game is the same regardless of the venue.

On the other hand Kwame Jackson, the only black man on The Apprentice, seems to have the game down pat, at least on the surface. For him, the game may have unintended consequences. All I can say about that is "beware playing the game too well because it can come back and play you." In other words, know what you're doing and know WHO you're doing it to. As I have said, the game does not rely on logic and you may fall prey to your own game-playing pitfalls if you're not careful. So don't sell out in the interests of thinking you're winning the game. You must always remain true to who you are.

Tip #3The game is not just one set of rules.

"Oh, who me?" This is what you are likely to hear when you call someone else out for playing the game of "trying to get ahead." They will never cop to it and will just go into "change the game" mode. If this happens, be wary of their attempt so that the old game catches up to them and not you. An example would be the colleague on the job who counsels you to do something about a particular work-related situation and then changes their story when it comes up around anyone else. Essentially, this person has told you one thing and done another. I call this "talking out of both sides of the mouth" and it is a particularly treacherous part of being in the game. You don't know who to trust.

Since trust is the key to any relationship, understand that there are those who use manipulation as a tool and will try to gain your trust and make you think that you are partners in the game--in the end only to reveal they were in it for themselves. The bottom line here is that you have to realize that the game is a chameleon and morphs in response to different circumstances and people. What you may have to do to deal with one person who is playing the game may be completely different from what you have to do in regards to playing dodge ball in another person's game. All I can say is be careful and pay close attention to who you are dealing with!

Tip #4Don't let the game change who you are.

Even though you may have to participate in the nonsense of playing the game on the job, do not let it fundamentally change who you are as a person. Leave that to the people of the world who are content to live a lie and go to work everyday with a fake smile on their face. Buying into the game too much can make you a fool--just like the people who perpetuate the game itself.

Like I said before, the game is not set up for you, so you have to realize that changing yourself to suit others is not the answer to winning. Game winners understand that the key is delving deeper into who you are as a human being and becoming more content with that. Only when you are certain of who you are, what your boundaries are, and what your goals are for playing the game, can you play with ease. Good execution depends on whether you are comfortable with yourself. This means that your smile can be genuine and your strides can be great. An added bonus to investing in this type of introspective work before even engaging in the game is that you won't get caught up with the stress of trying to be someone that you are not for most of the day. Just ask the many people who do this how stressed out and unhappy they are at work because they have not dealt with their own hang-ups and insecurities. Unfortunately, this unhappiness often translates to their family life, where they are unhappy as well.

Tip #5Realize that playing the game is only one tool in your toolbox of success.

If you know that you are a talented person and are confident in yourself, you will realize that the game does not define you and that it is only one tool in your toolbox of success. I encourage learning how to play the game as a means to an end, not an end in itself. If you have solid skills, marketable talents, and all the other attributes of success, not being able to play the game may be the only thing holding you back. If this is the case, I want you to be fully armed in the event you need to go into game-playing mode to get to the next level at your job, or in life. People who truly "get it" are those who play the game AND maintain a strong sense of self at the same time. The game will only break you if you let it.

--Dr. Clemmons

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