I usually respect a colleague who jumps to the top of the class in a conversation with a client or in a team meeting with a better idea or solution than mine. It's compelling to hear someone offer an idea you've never thought of that's both relevant and well-researched.
But my respect can turn to resentment when he or she offers a bald-faced correction to my idea or recent work. That resentment can intensify as they "top" me with their accomplishment or opinion. It's not so much the fact that their idea is timely and helpful — it's the way they present it that can suck the wind out of your (and the meeting's) sails.
Here are five tips for helping one-uppers to maintain mutual respect and help everyone do their best work.
Try to understand their behaviour
If you can understand the roots of a one-upper's behaviour you will be better able to manage it.
In my workplace experience, one reason one-uppers act the way they do is because they can be insecure, or display a compulsive need for attention and praise. I know this because I've been guilty of it myself. When starting a new assignment working with a client's internal team, I sometimes tried a little too hard to make my mark. This made other team members feel intimidated by me — an outside contractor who seemed to be trying to take their jobs by showing them up.
I sometimes tried a little too hard to make my mark.
If you've ever been put off by a one-upper's apparent lack of civility, it can be partially explained by the strategy of "the best defence is a good offence." They may be naturally (and insufferably) competitive and feel the need to dominate every work or social situation. This kind of one-upper may take the form of a self-appointed office cop who belittles others, not unlike a fact checker at an insurance company I recall who was so patronizing that no one could tolerate him.
Gently bring it up
When on a contract, a client diplomatically suggested that I not complete work too quickly because it bothered others on the team — including my manager. Sometimes one-uppers don't mean to diminish others. In my case, the subject matter was familiar to me and it was hard to slow my pace. Still, I appreciate that they brought the issue up with me.
Whether you are a colleague or manager of a one-upper, meet over coffee and have a couple of examples of their behaviour ready to share. Then, instead of "Why are you always trying to one-up others?" you can say "I've noticed you like to add to others' ideas with your own on a regular basis. Have others ever mentioned this to you?" Talk about how this can make you (and others feel), and give them a chance to respond.
Consider their feelings
It won't help anyone to fuel a one-upper's resentment by making a show of calling them out, especially in a group setting. I once witnessed a manager try to one-up an employee by criticizing their work in a management meeting. The employee was embarrassed and took her boss to task until another manager intervened and got the meeting back on track.
This mistake risks hurting your coworker and could make them think twice before sharing their ideas. To stay conciliatory, a manager might consider saying in private, "I appreciate you have some great ideas and we want to hear them. They might come across better if you could keep others' pride in their work in mind when you share them."
Suggest better ways to share ideas
Some competitive and ambitious people see only the goal ahead, not the collateral damage they may cause in its pursuit — whether it's a promotion, a need to be respected, or to single-handedly drive the success of the team or business.
Helping them script their response may be useful if done in a way that doesn't patronize them. For example, a one-upper may instinctively say something like, "Joel has missed the mark on this and we need to consider my approach instead." Joel will probably feel humiliated and may choose to hold back in future meetings or discussions.
You can suggest the one-upper begin the conversation with a more diplomatic, "Joel raises a lot of good points, some of which I hadn't considered. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest another angle for us to consider."
Give them props for taking a better approach
Notice the new energy in the room when former one-uppers think before they speak. They may agree that conversations and meetings now feel more productive — and relaxed. They'll feel a part of the team without having to outshine others. The whole team will feel this change — I recall how a recovering one-upper raised team morale simply by acknowledging the work of others before she weighed in herself.
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There's no need to candy-coat constructive criticism in the workplace. You aren't part of a support group. But how you build on someone's idea and why you are doing it are equally important in any results-oriented workplace or career.
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