The good and the bad boss or the reality of the game theory

Recently Klara told me a story. She was preparing an expertise according to the instructions of her supervisor. In the course of the preparation she found that the argumentation line of her supervisor would be untenable. She told that her supervisor and suggested that she would change the argumentation. Back then he only half-listened to her and nodded in agreement to her suggested changes. Klara changed the expertise and gave it to her boss. Then she did not hear anything for a long time.

After about two months he came to her desk, gave her a letter and shortly said that they have a problem. Klara looked at the letter and saw that the customer had obtained a second opinion to his problem by one of the best experts in the country. His expertise pretty much corresponded to the expertise she had written.

Only now it turned out that Klara’s boss had changed back the expertise written by her to his original idea without having talked to her and had sent it in their both names.

But it got even worse. On the following day in a meeting with the client, the client wanted to know why this different from the second opinion and whether they would stick with their opinion and if yes, why. With an apologizing smile Klara’s boss said he was very very sorry but the expertise had been prepared by Klara and he had corrected it in line with the second opinion but had then by mistake sent Klara’s original, incorrect expertise. At the same time he gave the client the expertise as Klara had sent it to him.

Klara was speechless and appalled. Shame coloured her cheeks red and she got unsightly red spots on the neck. She could not say a word and the looks they were giving her caused endless humiliation to her.

3 months later she gave her notice. A clear zero-sum game in which both Klara and her boss had lost.

About 50 years ago John von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstern formulated the game theory. By mathematical methods they described social structures. They described that in relations between people certain processes go according to certain rules. They end either as zero-sum game (both loose), or as one sided advantage (one wins and another loses) or both win (so-called win-win situation). Only the third result forms something new, progressive, a mutual contract.

If you are looking for a new job, your main question to your new boss should be how he creates win-win situations. If he/she cannot plausible convince in this respect, I would suggest not accepting such position. Even if the salary might sound wonderful!! Some people may be able to endure humiliations for compensation for a long, very long time, but hardly anyone can endure it permanently.

One thought on “The good and the bad boss or the reality of the game theory

  1. With all due respect, the game theory usage in the story is wrong, and the zero sum description is wrong as well. Let us start with the simpler objection: Michaela writes “zero-sum game (both loose)”. By definition, stated long before Neumann contributed to the solutions of game theory, the zero sum game of two players cannot end by two losses. The lost of the first player equals to the win of the other – thus the zero sum name. Full point.
    The second objection is much deeper (and I feel it could eventually become subject of fruitful discussion): Providing the story is true, one should not try to push it into some scientific, logical or mathematical playground. No math can help in expressing clearly the message. On contrary, it just (even if used correctly) distract the clarity of the story. I agree with Michaela that establishing the win-win game rules between colleagues and also in subordinate-boss situations is desirable. The story itself speaks, however, about something completely different: One should not accept ethically corrupted boss. Hard to recognize during the interview, but sooner or later it usually pops out.
    Story does not say, whether Klara instantly (without the customer) informed the boss about her feeling about it and whether she afterwards informed higher structures (if any). If not, shadow of the thing lays on her, too. Evil must be at least named, otherwise we participate. Both ethically lost, negative sum game sadly ended.


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