A group of friends or colleagues gathers for a meeting, lunch, or a break. Spontaneous conversation happens. Topics, whether or not work-related, are random at first. Geoff offers a knowledge tidbit related to the latest comment. That prompts Vivian to offer a tidbit that's a little more arcane. She's reaching for the I-didn't-know-that reaction in the maximum number of people. When Chad outdoes Vivian, the Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is officially underway.
To win the Knowledge One-Upmanship Game, players submit "bids" — tidbits of knowledge that they believe will prove the superiority of their brains by demonstrating that they know something nobody else does. Even better, the bidder shows that what everyone else thinks they know is actually wrong, and that only the bidder knows the truth. Like any game, it has rules. Here's a sampling.
- Be cool
- Players who bid too eagerly risk revealing that they know that the one-upmanship game is afoot. It's best to make contributions during an awkward pause in the action. Pauses occur when the most recent bid is truly impressive, because the players are all searching their brains for a bid that's even more impressive.
- Extra points for minimizing others' knowledge
- Beginning a bid with something like, "It's not so simple," or, "It's even worse than that," elevates the perceived value of the bid by depressing the perceived value of the previous bid.
- Extra points for forcing another player to underbid
- One player can trap another player into underbidding by letting him or her spew for a while, and then pouncing with a bid on the same topic that puts the spewer to shame. Extra points for interrupting the spewer.
- Confessing ignorance is a sure loser
- It's a mistake to try to defuse tension by confessing ignorance of a fact someone just contributed. That player will just smile knowingly, and might add an even more arcane tidbit.
Despite an appearanceDespite an appearance of rollicking
good fun, especially with respect
to bodies of knowledge unrelated
to work, the game can become
tense and hypercompetitive of rollicking good fun, especially with respect to bodies of knowledge unrelated to work, the game can become tense and hypercompetitive. Players might conceal their frustrations when they "lose," but they might nevertheless experience hurt feelings and resentment of the "winners." The effects of repeated episodes (rematches of the game) can accumulate, eroding the relationships that form the foundation of effective collaboration.
We tend to prefer to believe that game-playing behavior is beneath us. When players sense — or hear a suggestion — that the game is underway, their rational thought processes have a chance to gain control, which reduces the momentum of the game. That's why merely acknowledging the game can sometimes bring it to a halt. Try it when next you notice the Knowledge One-Upmanship Game in progress. Or just pass this post around. Top Next Issue
For quick summaries of other games, specifically for meetings, see "Games for Meetings: I," Point Lookout for February 12, 2003.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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Some nurturers of pet projects abuse their authority to secure resources for their pets. How does this happen?
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- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: II
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- Ego Depletion: An Introduction
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- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
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are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.