2 min read

Who is writing the rules for the game you're playing?

When a conversation becomes a game, relative leverage becomes the scorecard. Some people have the ability to set the agenda at the beginning of a conversation. They set the relative status of each party: I’m higher, and have all the leverage. You’re lower, and you have none of it. Regardless of the context or the situation, charisma or thinly veiled aggression has the effect of making people nervous and feeling like they are losing in a two-person footrace where the silver medal is death.

Conversations of this kind are of course purely imaginary. A simulation inside a simulation. What is a chat between two people other than hot air with locally reduced entropy? Acceptance of the terms means recognizing the implied hierarchies suggested by the tone of the conversation and accepting one’s fate within that framework. The adrenal fight-or-flight response is a purely ego-driven reaction. “How could this person think I am so low down on the hierarchy? Don’t they know who I am?” Or, “This person has framed me as low status by picking up on one of my vulnerabilities. I guess it was worse than I thought, I’d better tread water to stay alive.”

The clearest example that draws the contours of the game within the game is when two parties think the leverage scorecards show them both respectively at 100%. The usual result is an ugly and petulant spat between two brats. What other possible outcome could demonstrate that this leverage is an imaginary bean-counting game? A figment of two unsynchronized imaginations.

Essilor and Luxottica, two eyeglass giants, circled each other for a merger in the heady 2010s, flush with QE-subsidized balance sheets before inflation had a chance to really wreck the purchasing power of the middle class at scale. They were on the verge of realizing an industry dominating monopoly that could bring them both countless fortunes. A spat about the terms of the engagement almost broke the deal apart:

“[The issue] is just a scapegoat. Hubert Sagnières must have the courage to say that, for him, I am the problem. Hubert Sagnières accepts only what he proposes himself”

The best and only strategy is to be single-minded with the objective at hand. Sometimes an uncomfortable conversation might be the only path through to success. But status games are a two-person game. Why let ego-driven reactions of one party set the terms of the outcome? Even if you need a counterparty for something and they have more leverage, letting your ego feel bruised from a perceived status difference is the best way to not achieve your goals. Letting on about weaknesses is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Better yet is when the distribution of this imagined leverage is actually unclear or emerging. Incumbents or loud disruptors will make noise about competitors. The CEO of Palm fatefully said, in 2006:

“PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

He tried to frame the rules of the game: phones are made by phone people.

Steve Jobs ignored the simulation completely and the status reframing within it. This was despite having no sales, no market share, no industry experience building mobile phones and no experience dealing with carriers and wireless networks. He knew which game he was focused on playing and he didn’t much care about the rules that the Palm CEO was trying to get him to follow.

Who is writing the rules for the game you are about to start playing? Who wrote the rules for the game you find yourself playing now?