Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 23;   June 7, 2017: The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game

The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate.
A blue peacock of India

A blue peacock of India, displaying its plumage. Such displays are typical of courtship behavior. It has long been believed that they serve as sexual attractors, as first proposed by Charles Darwin. But a more recent hypothesis is that the burden of producing and maintaining such plumage is evidence of physical fitness.

The fitness hypothesis might also apply to the human behavior described here. Demonstrating superiority in the Knowledge One-Upmanship Game might be taken by others as an indicator of mental fitness, and the physical fitness required to support such pursuits.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Power Affect  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Doodles by T.D. Lee, created while working with C.N. YangDismissive Gestures: III
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Mustang stallions fightingWorst Practices
We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service, here are some of the best worst practices.
Polonius's Charge to Laertes, color wood engraving by Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989)A Critique of Criticism: I
Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
President George W. Bush of the United States and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi ArabiaSocial Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors, and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do we decide whose preferences rule?
A lonely chimpanzeeWorkplace Politics and Social Exclusion: II
In workplace politics, social exclusion can be based on the professional role of the target, the organizational role of the target, or personal attributes of the target. Each kind has its own effects. Each requires specific responses.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A meeting held in a long conference room.Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
A dictionaryAnd on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.