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

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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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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. Here's a date for this program:

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