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
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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:
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Management Debt: II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring
costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- Social Entry Strategies: I
- Much more than work happens in the workplace. We also engage in social behaviors, including one sometimes
called social entry. We use social entry strategies to make places for ourselves in social groups at work.
- Projects as Proxy Targets: II
- Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins,
some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
- On Snitching at Work: I
- Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work.
Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
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- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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