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Don't play 'superiority game' with insecure co-worker

Q: I have an older co-worker who constantly tries to prove that he's smarter than I am. "Tom" never went to college, while I have an advanced degree. Although I never mention my education, he brings it up all the time.

Because we work in a scientific field, Tom likes to search for obscure pieces of information and quiz me about them. If I don't know the answer, he says, "Well, you're the one that went to college." But if I do know the answer, he immediately goes online to find a way to contradict me.

These ridiculous debates are a complete waste of time. Even though I spent six years of my life studying this field, Tom will never accept anything I say. I am so frustrated that I have considered complaining to our boss. Do you have any other suggestions?

A: Although you probably don't realize it, you are actually encouraging Tom's childish behavior. In the language of office politics, your insecure colleague is playing a "superiority game." Superiority players compensate for feelings of inadequacy by trying to appear more important or informed than others.

The best way to shut down such a game is simply to stop playing. Since Tom's underlying objective is to aggravate you, expressing annoyance or engaging in pointless arguments will only motivate him to continue. Therefore, you must break this communication pattern by switching to a neutral response.

For example, when Tom points out that you went to college, just reply, "That's true." If he contradicts you, say, "That's an interesting point." Then drop the subject. Should you unwittingly become trapped in a verbal contest, end the interaction by saying, "We could probably debate this for a long time, but I have to get back to work."

The secret to success is delivering all of these comments calmly and with a smile. To reduce your irritation, keep reminding yourself that Tom's obvious insecurity is actually rather pathetic. Once his verbal jabs stop producing the desired result, he will eventually abandon the game because it will no longer be rewarding.

Finally, please resist the urge to take this petty complaint to your boss. Managers need to deal with business problems, not personal squabbles. Besides, if you report that Tom is annoying you by trying to act superior, you will sound exactly like a tattling 10-year-old.

Identifying tattletale wouldn't be helpful

Q: I recently made the mistake of including an inappropriate person on a group email. Someone tattled about this to my boss, who sternly warned me to never do it again. I'm not sure who the tattletale was, but I suspect three people. Two of the suspects are my co-workers, and the third is a manager on my boss' level.

I need to find out who did this to me. Both co-workers have denied any involvement, though I'm not sure I believe them. The manager can be very prickly, so I have not yet spoken to her. Would it be appropriate to approach her in a professional manner and nicely ask whether she told my boss about this error?

A: Wanting to know who turned you in is perfectly understandable. But like many normal human reactions, this impulse is not particularly helpful. Therefore, the answer to your question is no, you should not interrogate the prickly manager about her discussions with your boss.

Despite your strong desire to ferret out the truth, you actually do not need to know who reported your mistake. Continuing to obsess about the tattler's identity will just waste emotional energy and create unnecessary drama.

If you had been falsely accused, that would be a different matter. But since you did make an error, the appropriate response is to assure your manager that it will never happen again and then move on.

You should also consider the very real possibility that your basic assumption may be incorrect. Your boss could easily have learned of this event through normal conversation, with no tattling involved at all.

Don't play 'superiority game' with insecure co-worker 07/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 7:04pm]
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