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
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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:
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends.
Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage.
Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- Judging Others
- Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted
social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often?
- Bad Trouble: Coping strategies
- When Bad Trouble develops at work people make choices about coping. If they cope constructively, they
have choices about how to do that. Even those who don't cope constructively have choices. Here's a survey
of the wide range of choices people make.
- Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time
and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the
sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates.
- Avoiding Speed Bumps: I
- Many of the difficulties we encounter while working together have few long-term effects. They just cause
delays, confusion, and frustration. Eventually we sort things out, but there is a better way: avoid
the speed bumps.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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