How to Manage the ‘One-Upper’

June 2021
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One of the funny things about the classic NBC series “Seinfeld” was how it would take a common personality trait and turn it into a character on the show, like the “double-dipper,” the “low talker,” the “close talker,” the “high talker” or the “re-gifter.”

There is a character they missed, and I must admit it would have been fun to see how they would have treated this person: the “one-upper.”

You know who I’m talking about. It’s someone who will do one of two things. They will either “one-up” something you say to try to look better than you, or they will put you down.

Of course, the one-upper needs an audience. This could be a group at a party or a business meeting, or more strategically, a time when the one-upper knows your boss will see their one-upmanship.

Early in my career, I had a colleague who predictably saved his calculated putdowns for times when we were both in the company of our boss. Fortunately, most of the bosses I’ve had rewarded performance, not one-upmanship.

You’ll find this behavior in other venues as well, from social media to professional association activities.

Let’s say you’re on a committee and you represent a PR firm. There are two other consultants involved, along with a number of potential clients. One of those consultants always treats you with professional respect and courtesy. The other always seems to be looking to put you down to gain favor with those potential clients.  It’s not difficult to find someone trying to get ahead at the expense of someone else.

Avoiding the game 

So, what do you do if you don’t want to play that game?

If you’ve never read Stephen R. Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” then I’d highly recommend it, if for any other reason than to read the short chapter on “Habit 4: Think Win-Win.”

As Covey describes it, to think win-win isn’t simply about being nice.  It’s a philosophy of how to treat others so that no matter the situation where you are dealing with at least one other person, you both come away with a mutual benefit. Win-win, not win-lose.

To illustrate the point, Covey says that most times you can find a way for both of you to win. If you and that rival both want the same promotion, then you can improve your chances by treating each other with respect and support, since a savvy manager will likely see more promise in that than in the more toxic win-lose personality. One thing you never know is that some totally new option may present itself which you hadn’t considered.

The win-lose personality seems built on the premise that in order to get what you want you must take from someone else. In a workplace full of ambitious people, win-lose personalities are the ones trying to unjustly take credit away from others and give it to themselves.

Seeing through the mindset

Good managers can see through this and know that if you promote a win-lose personality, they will likely manage their people in the same way, taking something from subordinates and giving it to themselves. Good managers know that a win-win mindset is often required to earn the respect of people they respect. In turn, they look to help others with the same mindset.

If you have a one-upper in your life, then think win-win. Don’t approach your work as a competition designed to defeat your colleagues, but one centered on advancing through solid performance and self-improvement. 

Do that and you will demonstrate a pattern of behavior that is attractive to anyone who believes it is possible for more than one person to benefit from any given situation. 

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