Managing To Be A Gamer

I sit at my desk in my ordinary office, surrounded by pictures of my wife and children. A clock, ticking away the first few minutes of the morning, hangs above my dual monitors. The lights hum to life above my office-standard Cisco phone. Emails begin to charge into my inbox: a random assortment of morning urgencies from those bizarre populations who choose to rise from their beds while the sun is still down. Hurriedly scrawled messages from the ghosts of meetings past haunt my whiteboard. Deliberate notes about communication initiatives and production durations beg for my attention.

Beyond my open door is Cubeland: long avenues of people working between shoulder-high partitions. Keyboards clack between snippets of conversations, some eager and others entirely casual, otherwise punctuated only by the busy footsteps of people walking past to and from meetings. At the far end, a window runs the length of the building, looking out only to the alley between us and the larger building of our parent company. Sunlight struggles into the gap.

Here, I am middle-manager-Sean, overseeing several teams with a dozen-plus members per group. I will coach, which is a nice way of saying boss-around, the people who directly report to me. I will woefully bastardize completely innocent words like ‘silo’ and ‘vertical’ to my own nefarious, nonsensical uses. I will have important sounding phone calls. And all the while, invisible and secret, I will think about the next level of Dishonored or XCOM that I am eagerly waiting to play when I am home and can be Gamer-Sean again.

But he is unwelcome here — this room, this place, this office. Gamer-Sean is not welcome, and, were he to suddenly appear, I fear he would quickly wither and die.

That sounds incredibly dour, I realize, and in truth I really like my job, my office and my co-workers. I take an unreasonable pride in having my meager office, a room that seats four comfortably, that has a door I can close and plenty of room for me to spread out my things. For years I lived in Cubeland as the Cubelandians do, a pleasant enough denizen of what feels much more like a communal space, but from my very first day I coveted the far fewer and more precious offices. It was four years and three steps through the ranks to earn myself one, and I cherish it unreasonably while already turning my ambitious eye to the next rank and the designated parking space it promises.

But I’m still a very different person when I’m here. It’s a second set of clothes, an internal identity that I can switch in and out of on a dime, but one that feels no less real or authentic to me. Manager-Me is real in every sense of the word. Not a mask, but a compartmentalized identity pulled from the handful of identities that only in aggregate make up me.

What strikes me, though, is how challenging it is to be the other parts of myself in this room, in this space, in this context. And when one of the frontline workers that reports two levels below me is sitting in my office for a conversation, and he brings up his interest in video games when I ask him about his hobbies, there is a small panic that flicks briefly in my mind. He starts talking about E3, and upcoming games he saw, and I must make the choice to engage him or play the part he’s already cast me in, which is that of the boss who is placating and politely listening to a thing that he has no interest in.

I see the way this person, who reports to me indirectly across a tiny chasm of other supervisors, sees me. I am a person to whom he has to be nice, but around whom he also has to be delicate. It bothers me, because I am figuratively begging to hear what people really think. I used to be one of them, and I know the difference between what you think and what you say to the manager can sometimes be as wide and dangerous as a toxic gulf. Some of the people who sit in my office do bring an unfiltered truth, which I hold dear and close, because that truth might allow me to actually figure out where the disconnects are between what I want and what really happens.

But most frontline employees go into meetings with me just wanting to navigate safely to the other side, and I can hardly blame them. I have enough direct peers who want only the filtered responses and mirrors of their own egos hung across from them in meetings. But unless I take a risk, why should my employees?

Now he is talking about a game he’s interested in that he saw during some E3 coverage, but he’s close to wrapping up and moving away from a topic he’s probably afraid makes him look childish.

“Oh, you’re talking about Beyond: Two Souls, the one with Ellen Page,” I say. He looks somewhat astonished. “Yeah, Quantic Dreams is making that. I’m hoping they pull it off, wasn’t a huge fan of Heavy Rain, but they made a great game a few years before called Fahrenheit. It was for the PC only, I think. You ever play that one?”

“No,” he says flatly, almost like he’s scoping out for the trap or the thing that will make this conversation fit the shape it had originally taken in his head.

“Yeah, Beyond could be good. I’ll definitely play it, but I thought The Last of Us blew everything else away at E3,” Gamer-Me says eagerly while Manager-Me sits back, wary of this gambit being played.

It pays off almost instantly.

His eyes brighten, almost astonished, as he nods an eager agreement. Just like that, we are having the first real conversation he and I have ever had. A genuine and enthusiastic discussion all about E3 and games of the fall and what genres we like and don’t. It takes up twenty minutes of our half-hour meeting, and we only talk briefly toward the end about some of the other things that are important to the business and the team. But there will be time for those conversations later, and I have a confidence I didn’t have before that when we do have those discussions, they will be much more honest and real.

I can’t help but wonder why I see leaders who almost seem afraid to connect back with the people who work for them, who are every bit as hesitant and wary as the people who come in their office just hoping to get back the other side unscathed. I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

As our conversation ends, and I’m left alone again with my pictures, ticking clock and whiteboard, I realize — not for the first time — that these different versions of me that I seem to segment out artificially are really a part of a shared same, and that perhaps I am strongest when I put them together instead of keep them apart.

Comments

As has been stated by many others, if I like a person, I'm far more motivated to work hard.

I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

At the company I work at now, almost everyone is terrified of the boss to some degree. This has the effect of us working more hours, but nobody (who isn't related to the boss) I know of is planning to grow old at that place.

beeporama wrote:

As I reading it, Taharka, being friendly with those you supervise is a luxury for those who don't need to do unpleasant things (like firing or asking for overtime) to those they supervise.

I think it helps when you really do like the people you supervise, and they like you, but about a month ago, my director asked me if I could fly to Africa the same day to install some hardware, then fly back. I just said, "Let me check with my wife." If it was someone besides him asking me, I probably would tried to pass the job off to someone else.

I left that day, Tuesday, arrived Wednesday evening, did the job, flew out Thursday, and got home Friday night. I got a day off the next week as a comp day, but that was all I got out of the trip. (Even my frequent flier miles haven't come through yet... grr.)

beeporama wrote:

As I reading it, Taharka, being friendly with those you supervise is a luxury for those who don't need to do unpleasant things (like firing or asking for overtime) to those they supervise.

It's almost as if it's harder to treat people less humanely when you have a human connection with them.

I don't know if it has ever hurt me but I've never separated my gamer side from my professional side. I practically wear my proclivities on my sleeve.

In my case, my team is all over the map in terms of age, sex, etc. There is one group that is mostly a bunch of guys my age, and I really enjoy getting to know them. However, I feel I need to avoid any perception of favoritism or bias on my part when it comes to asking people to do things they aren't crazy about. I think I would be doing a really crappy job, and not doing right by my team, if I let that perception enter into their thinking. So I don't think of personal camaraderie as a luxury so much as something that is affected by the ecology of the particular workplace.

hubbinsd wrote:

In my case, my team is all over the map in terms of age, sex, etc. There is one group that is mostly a bunch of guys my age, and I really enjoy getting to know them. However, I feel I need to avoid any perception of favoritism or bias on my part when it comes to asking people to do things they aren't crazy about. I think I would be doing a really crappy job, and not doing right by my team, if I let that perception enter into their thinking. So I don't think of personal camaraderie as a luxury so much as something that is affected by the ecology of the particular workplace.

That's a good point. Seeming fair and demonstrating equal discipline is very important. I try to connect and be friendly with all 40 of the people I supervise. This could lead to problems if it seemed like I was harder on certain people than I was on others.

I work in a very familial organization, but I've always believed that companies with strong relationships between leaders, followers, and peers are strong companies.

wordsmythe wrote:
beeporama wrote:

As I reading it, Taharka, being friendly with those you supervise is a luxury for those who don't need to do unpleasant things (like firing or asking for overtime) to those they supervise.

It's almost as if it's harder to treat people less humanely when you have a human connection with them. ;)

Remember that awesome boss I mentioned? I worked under her for five years and watched her hire, fire, discipline, deal with a subordinate that was actively trying to undermine her but she for some reason couldn't fire, and so forth. It can be done, it just (I would assume) sucks more.

I think the thing that really impressed me about her was her willingness to give someone who was trying to do better a second chance. A lot of other managers give you one chance. Ever. If you screw up, there is no way off the bad list. Not her. If you were a problem, you got treated like a problem, but if you were told you were becoming a problem and legitimately tried to turn things around? She'd help you out and cheer you on. Like I said, an exemplary manager AND person. I'll not see her like again for some time, methinks.

Bah - don't post when drunk :/

It's certainly an odd line to walk sometimes, and the need to walk it speaks volumes about people's need to put people in mental compartments. I have three distinct 'personalities' that I have to slip in and out of on a daily basis: doctor, military officer, and gamer/geek. Of course, in reality they're all just me dressed up in different clothes, but it's stunning how differently people react to me depending on what hatte I'm wearing at the time. It's something I have to be aware of, as I'm an authority figure in a couple of my roles, and that authority can be undermined if I don't have people's trust and respect.

For example, most people view doctors as conservative figures, and they're generally right. But if a patient were to find out that I own black leather boots that go up to my knees, covered with buckles, and a black trench-coat for when I go out clubbing, for many of them that would be deeply disconcerting. Similarly, if they were to find out that I'm a huge gaming geek who devotes a lot of time and treasure in that hobby, they would also be disconcerted. This also goes for most of the staff. On a personal level, I'm happy to let my freak-flag fly, but on a professional level I understand that it's bad for discipline and cohesiveness. Right or wrong (and frankly, it's insane to think that my medical acumen is bad because I like swords and sorcery over throwing pigskins), people don't trust people as much if they don't fit into their world-view. I know a lot of docs who are definitely people who would have dyed hair and piercings, but none of their patients would be comfortable with it, so they don't.

That said, sometimes it's fun to let a little hint slip. I had a young guy in the hospital recently who was geeking out over running android on a laptop on top of Ubuntu. He mentioned it casually to the doctor examining him almost as a way of just filling the silence, but when I mentioned that I'd just installed a GeForce 470 in my home-built machine, and had fooled with various flavours of Linux but didn't go with it due to crappy gaming support, he suddenly opened right up. It was an awesome way to connect with my patient. In another instance, a nurse happened to be reading something and I casually asked her what it was (as one does to make polite conversation). She was initially embarrassed and said I wouldn't understand, but with some polite prompting ended up telling me that it was a high fantasy-type novel. Her eyes were like saucers when I started telling her about some of the great fantasy writers I enjoyed, and solicited her for advice on her favourites. In her mind, there was no way that the conservative military doctor read fantasy books. She was suddenly much more open to me after that.

It's a shame that we have to lock away part of ourselves if we're in any position of authority. But that said, I've seen leaders who don't have any reserve and, at least in the military, that tends to end badly. I do believe that it's true that you can't be someone's boss and their friend at the same time. Like it or not, the first time you have discipline that friend, either the work relationship or the friendship is going to suffer. The day may come when conservative workplace values don't dominate, but I suspect it's not going to be any time soon (unless you work at Google).

I work in an executive recruitment agency and see all sorts of people at the threshold proposing their own impression of what being a boss is all about.

Unless we're forced to look for people with very specific skills and can't afford too much emphasis on character, it's almost always a modest, down-to-earth, honest and humane candidate who gets the job.

Coldstream is right on the money.

Opening up and connecting to subordiantes, customers, patients, and other people on a human level is a great thing, and doing this does not have to undermine your authority in any way.

However, there is a difference in connecting with someone, and being someone's friend. You can (and should!) have friends in your workplace. In my case, my friends are all peers of mine. They are similar level managers of other departments. These are people I can share stories with, get advice from, and share some beers with during time off. People I am working directly with, for, and over, are connection level only.

Finding the difference between connection and friend, and who in your workplace can be befriend or connected with, is the key to navigating this particular issue.

Articles like this make me exceedingly happy that I don't work in an office.

Its nice to hear you dropped the manager mask for a moment. Being a life long cubie I always worked hardest for the genuine folks who actually gave a toss about me.

The friend issue is a very interesting one to me, and I always marvel a little at the way I see some leaders (particularly newer ones) navigate that. I like the people who report to me, and I want to connect with them, and I want to be as transparent as possible, and I want them to succeed. However, none of them are or, I think, can be my friends.

I feel like bridging that friend divide is a huge pitfall and fraught with problems, several of which have already been expressed here. It is, in some ways, an unfortunate distinction that has to be made, but a necessary one.

Articles like this make me exceedingly happy that I don't work in an office.

It's interesting. I really like working in an office. I feel very challenged and in the right ways most of the time. I realize I may be in the minority there, but I think working in an office gets a bad rap a lot.

LTTP but Sean, this was fantastic. Lots for me to think about here.

For example, most people view doctors as conservative figures, and they're generally right. But if a patient were to find out that I own black leather boots that go up to my knees, covered with buckles, and a black trench-coat for when I go out clubbing, for many of them that would be deeply disconcerting.

I don't see why. NPH was genius in Starship Troopers.

EDIT: Something about Napoleon and Waterloo, re:

I've seen leaders who don't have any reserve and, at least in the military, that tends to end badly.

Can I say how astonished I am the credentials of many GWJers.

"I manage, 4, 20, 3 departments, this region...."

My brain still won't make the connection from these sorts of workplace authority figures to gamers. I know it's out there. I just can't make the leap because of my own mental blocks.

The second to last office that I worked in was an all sports frat house. The last office that I worked in was just plain dysfunctional. I can't see discussing being a gamer at either.

That makes it seven years since I worked in a normal office, where people were treated well.

I was working in that office when Neverwinter Nights was still fairly current. Some of you will know how much I love that game's RPG format for replicating the table top experience. A co-worker brought it up in conversation with me, and I played dumb like I didn't know what it was, because 1-it was D&D, and 2-it was video games. I was sure that these would hurt my status, socially and professionally and would limit my career progress. This is something that I programmed my adolescent brain with, when we never told anyone that we played D&D. Somehow it was entrenched deeper than it needed to be and now I can't shake it.

I am now completely out of touch with office culture. I work alone in the basement, an meet clients, and contractors occasionally.

My struggle with this is now: if I grow, what kind of office environment will I foster, and what would my customers think.

Keep the insights coming for boss / employee relationships, and the consequences. I could use the research.

I am new here, attracted in part by this article. It is a great writeup, and I agree with many here who see it as an insight into a generation. As Tyagi put it: "I think the current age-group of "mid career" workers is dotted with those of us who do play video games, but that this number will significantly increase as the next generation filters through"

I feel this sort of pincer at work. My boss is 50-something and is of the old school division head hiearchical organization structure. Games are things you do after the chores are done, in between Monday Night Football and golf. Meanwhile, my team is in the 30-40 something range where games are as mainstream as grandma and apple pie.

So I help the boss understand that sports geeks are still geeks and gamers are harder workers than non gamers, because we tend to gamify anything even before "gamify" was a thing

Great article, loved it!

But unless I take a risk, why should my employees?

Exactly. It's not easy opening yourself up to others, especially when you are their leader. As a manager of 15 people, I think it's paramount to first connect on a person to person level. Without that solid foundation, everything else is shaky.