Mind the Mind Games

Coaching a sports team is a tricky job.

You’re both manager and more. But, as the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice shows, there are limits.

A video surfaced this week showing Rice shoving his players, throwing basketballs at them and berating them with anti-gay slurs. “The days where a coach could get away with grabbing a jersey in a huddle or of shoving a player to command attention have passed,” The Newark Star-Ledger observed.

Despite widespread agreement that Rice needed to go, some of his players have actually come to his defense. “Mike was almost like a big brother,” Rutgers player Wally Judge told USA Today. “He would get on the floor with us and go through drills with us. He made it fun. When you have a big brother type of figure, you know you can play around like that.” Sophomore forward Austin Johnson added, “He did a lot for us off the court, academically, socially. I have to say I enjoyed my time, even if it was an emotional roller-coaster.”

Although he clearly crossed the line, Rice was hardly the only coach to try to manipulate his players’ emotions—to try and get inside their heads. Can such an approach ever work?

Peter Drucker saw old-fashioned carrot-and-stick incentives fading from the workplace. But he was concerned about organizations turning to a new tactic: “playing on individual fears, anxieties and personality needs.” In Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Drucker went so far as to term it “psychological despotism.”

heres johnnyThat a coach like Rice did a lot for players off the court—effectively, off the job—may, even if it was done out of the goodness of his heart, have been part of the problem. “Using psychology to control, dominate and manipulate others is self-destructive abuse of knowledge,” Drucker wrote. “It is also a particularly repugnant form of tyranny.”

Not only is this immoral, in Drucker’s view, it’s ineffective. “Psychological despotism cannot work any more than enlightened despotism worked in the political sphere 200 years ago—and for the same reason,” Drucker warned. “It requires universal genius on the part of the ruler.” A manager would have to have deep insight into the personalities of all his employees, when most managers have enough trouble just managing their own problems.

“Managers should indeed know more about human beings,” Drucker conceded. “They should at least know that human beings behave like human beings, and what that implies. … And yet, any manager, no matter how many psychology seminars he or she attended, who attempts to put psychological despotism into practice will very rapidly become its first casualty.”

What do you think? Are management mind games common in the workplace—and, if so, what can be done about it?