I-players are a breed apart from other players. Most people who drive you up the wall find their motivations in underlying insecurity or a sense of inadequacy. For the I-player, a different kind of process is going on.
When the I-player overrates his skills and abilities, you are not seeing an overcompensation or intentional exaggeration. The player truly believes his skills and abilities are better than they are. People say things about these players like, “If he were half as good as he thinks he is, it would be a thing to behold.” The point is that the player may be competent at something or may be just average. Nonetheless, he perceives himself as being better than he actually is. Usually, this overrating of his ability is to the extent that the player honestly believes he is the best at whatever it is.
The player also believes that everyone else in your company is much less competent than he is at whatever it is. You can take it to the bank that everyone else includes you. The I-player is a superior person, he thinks.
This feeling of superiority reaches beyond skills and abilities. The I-player believes his issues are all that matter. The problems and interests of others are unimportant in comparison. The player acts as if he is above it all, and from his point of view it is true. The player’s self-interest is of primary importance, and there is no reason to look beyond that.
The I-player indeed does believe he is superior. It is important never to forget this simple fact. Now consider the equally valid fact that the belief is irrational. The player is not the best at everything and especially not the best at getting along and working with others. Since the belief is irrational, talking with or confronting him about it will do little good. It will tend to reinforce the belief, as irrational as that might be.
What does effective counter play look like with the I-player? The key is not to buy into the game. Over time, most people will, for whatever reason, gradually come to treat the player as if he is better than anyone else. It may be just too exhausting or tedious to do anything else. The I-player is not called on his behavior. He gets privileges other people do not have. People listen to the player when no one is interested in what he is saying. People develop a tolerance for the I-player, are deferential because it is easier, and let the player have his way.
What to do? First, treat the I-player the same as everyone else. Do not give him special privileges. Do not listen unless what he is saying is of interest. Do not defer to him unless he is right. If you are to play successfully with the I-player, you need to be self-assured, assertive, and persistent.
For most I-players, being fair, firm, and consistent will be enough to affect change in their behavior. For the committed few, however, an additional technique is needed.
I-players do have problems, make mistakes, and get into difficult situations. Their approach is primarily to displace responsibility onto other people. It is not their fault; and they go to some length to be sure you know that. Here is what to do when you know you are dealing with an I-player.
Say, “I can see that this is a serious problem. It may not be your fault; but you are in the best position to handle it. Given your skills and experience, you are the logical choice to get us out of this crisis. I am directing you to pull together a team including the key people and to get this one fixed. I am delegating the authority and responsibility to you. Please take care of it.” It is likely that the problem will quickly become less critical and that the I-player will be less likely to play his game with you the next time he has a problem. Just be sure to keep an eye on the situation. In the unlikely event that there actually is a crisis needing your intervention, you want to remain in a position to do what needs done.
One further technique may be useful if the I-player does get together the team but gets everyone up in arms. Wait until the next time he comes to you with a crisis that is, of course, not his fault. Listen to hear who he is blaming this time. Suppose his target is Sue. Say, “Thank you for calling this to my attention. I will have Sue get together a team to deal with this. I also will let her know that she can expect your full cooperation. I am sure you will have no problem working for Sue on this one, since you are so concerned and are not able to work it out by yourself.”
Having said how to deal with the obnoxious behavior, it is important to add the other side of the counter play. When the I-player does behave in acceptable and appropriate ways, treat him as you would anyone else. No, it is not a good idea intentionally to reward or reinforce acceptable behavior more so than with other staff. Appropriate behavior is to be expected, not rewarded. It is only necessary to reiterate that the I-player has to be treated like everyone else. Over time, he may come to behave more like everyone else, although this is unlikely. The only thing changing is the behavior of the people who have to deal with the player.
It will help to go back over the counter play in somewhat different terms. The I-player has – through whatever childhood and organizational experiences – come to believe that he is in important ways superior to and better than others. The result is that the player is used to receiving special consideration and deference. Within your company, his associates are being secondarily conditioned.
The process works like this: As most people interact with each other, each person does two things. First, he adjusts to and accommodates to others. Next, he projects his personality and style in a way that enables others to adjust to and accommodate to him. This process may be understood as reciprocal accommodation. For most people, the process quickly leads to a “fit” within the group.
The I-player neither understands nor functions within the reciprocal accommodation process. His social learning has taught him that he does not have to adjust to or accommodate to others. The player assumes that others will adjust to and accommodate to him. It simply never occurs to the I-player that it should work in the other direction too.
Enter the I-player into your group or organization. Even worse, enter someone new into your group or organization where the I-player is already entrenched. Most people, without thinking about it, try to adjust to and accommodate to the I-player. Since there is no reciprocity, the effort is all one-sided. Over time, people are bending over backward to get along with the player, and he assumes a special position and role. This reinforces the player’s behavior and the game is on.
As an effective manager, you are alert to the game of the I-player and ready for counter play. The trick is to spot those relationships where the adaptation and accommodation are one-sided. When you see the pattern, the need is to treat the I-player the same as you treat everyone else. Do this by not adjusting or accommodating to him any more than to others. Your counter play indirectly gives permission to others in the group to follow your lead. Also, watch for and avoid any tendency to reinforce the I-player’s perception of being better, smarter, more skilled, and more important than others.