Do you let ego and basic survival instincts dictate your workplace behavior? Are co-workers playing destructive power games that undermine your efforts? Being territorial isn't always all bad, but if taken too far, it can work against you in today's collaborative team environment.

The caveman's to-do list: Spear a fish for dinner, hide surplus roots and berries, stick skulls on poles around perimeter of home to ward off enemy. The controller's to-do list: Make a pitch for a corner office, join a new cross-functional team, re-evaluate budget numbers per marketing's request for additional staff. The two agendas may seem dissimilar but they really aren't — both are about survival and territory.

What's mine? What's yours? What belongs to both of us? When the loot at stake was a huge slab of meat, or shelter from a blizzard or life itself (behold the attacking marauder), the actions were clear: Grab your weapons, beat your chest and do whatever necessary to protect your turf. Today, corporate warriors are unlikely to battle over a porterhouse steak, but more "civilized" loot is now on the table — promotions, budgets, raises and bonuses, decision-making power, talented staff members, corporate perks.

Annette Simmons, a behavioral science consultant and president of Group Process Consulting in Greensboro, N.C., states, "We are territorial because territory helps us survive. But self-image got mixed in with the survival programming. The emotional equipment designed to protect us from lions, tigers and bears and to help us find food, sex and shelter keeps running even when the lions are in cages and our stomachs are full. We are being run by out-of-date programming that operated for thousands of years to perpetuate the survival of the species."

Controllers Play Games?

Ken Matthews, CFO of Chatham Steel Corp. in Savannah, Ga., says, "We are at the apex of the places where you can play games, and we can be very territorial. Our job title is to control and we are controlling stuff all the time. It can be appropriate behavior because our job is to protect the company, but the behavior may be inappropriate when we are controlling out of our own egos. You can take a controller's job and define and manage a lot of territory with it, but doing so can be a big waste of time and energy."

Some territorial behavior (also known as competition) is necessary and healthy. It can spark creativity, reward those who have duly earned rewards and motivate people to perform at optimal levels. Territorial behavior, however, becomes destructive when it damages a company's or employee's performance or reputation, when it becomes truly greedy and vindictive, and when it casts an oppressive shadow on employee morale and commitment.

A lot of the time it's impossible to tell the difference between good and bad territoriality. Both can look the same, claims Matthews, but the underlying motivation is the determining factor. Simmons adds that people seem to have a "common wisdom" about manipulative, harmful action. In other words, co-workers know it when they see it.

Let the Games Begin

Let the Corporate Games Continue

The Powerful Alliances Game (I have friends in high places.)

Building good relationships is an essential part of survival in the workplace. However, when you use the power behind those alliances to cut behind-the-scenes deals, to pursue a personal agenda at the expense of the company's goals or to decimate a co-worker's reputation, then your territorial behavior is more about ego than it is about competitive survival.

The Invisible Wall Game (It must be the gremlins.)

Your brilliant and important project keeps running into mysterious obstacles and delays. Behind the problems may be a clever and manipulative turf monger who appears to be on your side but who covertly sabotages every move you make.

The Shunning Game (It works for the Amish.)

This happens when a person is excluded, ignored, humiliated — made to feel like an outsider. Whether the actions taken are blatant or extremely polite, the message is the same: "Stay out of my territory; you aren't welcome here."

The Camouflage Game (Look, a head in the road!)

The object is to throw an opponent off track by creating confusion. Ways to play: Send someone on a wild goose chase; bury an issue in reams of complex data; create an imaginary threat. The trick is to make all offensive actions seem logical and cooperative while the adversary gets disoriented and exhausted.

The Filibuster Game (We seem to have run out of time.)

Talk, talk and more talk can kill off the best of ideas. Motor mouths can make mountains out of molehills, lull listeners into a hypnotic trance and make everyone in a meeting want to abort discussion and just go home.

Source: Adapted from "Territorial Games: Understanding & Ending Turf Wars at Work" 1998 by Annette Simmons. Published by Amacom, a division of American Management Association. All rights reserved.

Simmons' in-depth research on corporate civil war is outlined in her book, "Territorial Games: Understanding & Ending Turf Wars at Work." Following are five of the ten games that she has identified (see Let the Corporate Games Continue (right) for the other games you or your co-workers may be playing).

  1. The Occupation Game (Possession is nine-tenths of the law.) It can mean holding on to the best office or parking space, but for the financial manager, the valuable commodity is information — having it and controlling it. Simmons says, "It's like having big, juicy bison in your cave. Information is power, a tool that can be used to either keep people out or to share the wealth. Being the gatekeepers, financial people can withhold information from the rest of the organization — more out of glee because they are the powerful ones — than from any sort of functional reason."
  2. The Information Manipulation Game (Damned lies and statistics.) The issue here is not so much withholding information as it is manipulating, or tweaking, it. Simmons explains, "In many organizations, how you crunch the numbers determines who looks best, who looks most profitable. Financial managers can wield this power to make or break another person or another division."

Oftentimes this game is played with the occupation game. And, contends Matthews, there are a lot of subtle versions of the two games. For instance: Hot off the computer is a report that a controller can take to a meeting that will take place in an hour. In the report are some numbers that could prove embarrassing for Frank in advertising. The controller could alert Frank about the numbers, or sit back and wait to see how Frank sweats out the numbers in front of a roomful of people. Matthews concludes, "These games can be much more subtle than playing with or withholding the numbers — it's how you work with people that matters. Financial managers are in a position where we can help people out, help them prepare and manage their processes, or we can set them up, watch them squirm."

  • The Intimidation Game (Make my day.) What's the easiest way to stop people from constantly asking for more money, bigger budgets? Shut them down fast and authoritatively when they make the request. Simmons says, "A little intimidation is appropriate in some situations. You can't have every person who wants money in your office for three hours, explaining a great idea and the need for more money. But be aware when you are playing this game mindlessly." The price of playing this game is obvious: Aggressive opponents, who won't take no for an answer, keep coming back. Simmons points out, "The intimidation may create a situation in which resources are allocated according to whomever is the biggest pain in the butt."
  • The Strategic Noncompliance Game (Oops, sorry, I forgot.) The above three games focused primarily on the financial manager as the instigator of the game, though the train runs both ways. In strategic noncompliance, you could easily be the victim. Suppose you need vital data from Sam in corporate communications to complete an important report on company downsizing. Sam agrees to give you all that you need but breaks the promise — with a good excuse. (Sam seems to repeat this behavior often.) Simmons warns, "Noncompliance players can protect their budgets, pet projects and very often their ability to play outside the rules."
  • The Discredit Game (He's OK, but I wouldn't trust him.) Financial managers are increasingly becoming a part of strategic planning teams. However, those who occupy that territory may not welcome the analytic folks who could throw water on the creative fires. It is politically stupid to ignore the financial person. A more effective strategy is to covertly show that the financial person doesn't really belong in the room. Simmons maintains that a little sarcasm can work: "Someone can make a bean-counter joke or say something like, 'Gee, Marcia, if we let you run this business, we would will still be making the same product ten years from now. And it will be the same color — black.'"

    Better yet, says Simmons, is to ask the financial manager a question that he or she is unable to answer (even if the answer is immaterial to the discussion): "So, Marcia, do you really know how Widget Wonder works and why it is so essential to our manufacturing process?" Not knowing the answer to such a question can make you mumble and stumble, and lose credibility.

    Since face-to-face discrediting can invite retaliation, it is often done "behind people's backs," declares Matthews. For instance, he says, someone in sales and marketing might say, "The finance people don't understand our customers and products. The finance people come on the battlefield after the battle is over and kill the wounded. They live in their ivory towers and just pump out financial statements." In addition, says Matthews, "Discrediting can be totally unrelated to someone's competency and technical skills. It can be what kind of car they drive, what kind of shirts they wear, how they comb their hair, where they eat. The idea is to take one little flaw that has some credibility and pick on that flaw. It discredits the person in a very destructive way."

  • Moving Toward Peace

    Who needs to be constantly dodging "friendly fire"? Peace agreements and more civilized behavior seem to be the answers but not at the risk of self-destruction. Remember "West Side Story"? Tony, the hero, preached peace between the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. At the end of the play, Tony had accomplished his mission — as the gangs joined together in carrying his dead body off stage.

    Since territorial behavior is buried within our genes, it's unlikely that it will ever disappear. Many times people are not even aware that they are playing games; they just unconsciously jump into action whenever a threat appears near. In addition, some companies seem to encourage civil war as the backbone of competition. Nonetheless, there are some steps to take to decrease the turf wars at work.

    • Create a desire for change. Simply calling someone's attention to a game and telling them to stop doesn't work. Game players need to see that it is in their best interests to change (what's in it for me?). According to Simmons, "People are too complex to understand without their cooperation, and they are too difficult to change without their permission. It is your responsibility to create a genuine desire for change."
    • Put aside some logic. Territorial behavior often stems from irrational thinking. Try to zone in on the emotions and survival instincts that underlie the actions of your opponent. Simmons advises that you be careful about using the word "should" when you think and talk about corporate games. She says, "Let go of the word 'should' because it's not logical to think that people are going to behave logically."
    • Go first. Figure out what games you play and alter your behavior. Simmons cautions, "Try not to go around preaching love, trust and fairy dust. You'll get eaten alive. But by the same token, if people don't see a change in your behavior, there's no stimulus for them to change their behavior. Your behavior is the only thing in the system that you have control over."
    • Point out problems using the Socratic Method. This means asking insightful, nonthreatening questions to get people to look below the surface of their territorial actions. ("Did you think there was a hidden agenda in this project? What did you think it was?") You appeal to reason and common sense and allow people to reach their own conclusions about their behavior.
    • Don't hoard information. People need the right information to make good decisions and do their jobs well. According to Simmons, "Controllers may think that other people don't know that information is being withheld. Not only do they know, they in turn will retaliate by withholding information from controllers."
    • Tread carefully around resource allocation. Having limited resources to share is a sure trigger for war. Simmons advises, "The intelligence of the entire organization should be allowed to influence where resources are allocated. If you limit that intelligence by limiting the number of people who get in on that decision, then you are inviting a short-sighted or small-minded decision."
    • Retaliate at or below the level of intensity of your opponent. When forced into battle, you should defend yourself. Simmons recommends, "If someone hits you with a size-five club, you don't want to return the hit with a six club because that escalates the game. If someone hits you with a five, you respond with a five or, better yet, with a four. That lets the person know that you mean business but gives the opponent a chance to continue de-escalating the game."

    Redefining the Enemy

    Republicans and Democrats in Congress get along a lot better when a war, or a villain like Saddam Hussein, threatens the security of the United States. A common enemy tends to pull internal opponents together, makes them cooperate in order to fight the evil forces that could hurt both of them. Likewise, you can channel your territorial energy into finding and fighting a new enemy.

    A good candidate for "the enemy" is your primary competitor. Simmons explains, "If you can really get focused on who your competition is — out there in the marketplace — then that shrinks the differences between people and departments. You can work together better as a team." She concludes, "The transfer of our natural territorial instincts from internal enemies to external enemies is a better use of the territorial drive than infighting. Since you will never eliminate territorial drives, why not put them where you want them? If people need an enemy — and they do — give them one."