If you’re not thinking about work as a kind of poker game, you’re bound to lose. But if you play your cards right, you might save your job and get the plum assignments you want. That’s the thesis Dan Rust offers in his intriguing new book, Workplace Poker.
Rust, the charismatic founder of a corporate training publishing firm, frequently travels the country giving his cards and career management advice via speeches and workshops. He’s also a guy who has learned to be a better workplace poker player after losing a hand himself — that is, losing his job.
“I didn’t understand how I had missed the signals. Later on, I came to understand there were things I could have done, maybe not to avoid the tough circumstances completely, but to have had an earlier sense of what was going on and to be prepared so I could’ve sold myself and marketed myself better,” says Rust.
In regular poker, you know the cadence of the game and you know when it’s your turn. In the workplace, it’s completely different.
— Dan Rust, author of Workplace Poker
I recently interviewed Rust — who lives in Minneapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz. — for his advice on how to avoid getting played at work. Highlights:
Next Avenue: Who is your book, ‘Workplace Poker,’ for?
Dan Rust: It’s for anyone who is having a sense of dissatisfaction with their career growth and uncertain how to crack the code.
I have met a lot of talented, hard-working people over the years and I scratch my head looking at their career trajectory and say: ‘What’s up with that? That person should be much further along than they are.’ The book is the answer to that question.
What do you mean by workplace poker?
In the game of poker, you can’t not play the cards that are being dealt. In the workplace, the game is being played around you every day and you have to play. That frustrates some people who just want it to be about the work.
You have to be good at paying attention to reading people and situations the way you read the cards in poker. Be a corporate anthropologist — a Jane Goodall who observes people around you.
The game of workplace poker is far more complex than a regular poker game. In regular poker, you know the cadence of the game and you look for simple tells about whether a person is bluffing or not. You know when it’s your turn. In the workplace, it’s completely different.
So how should someone read other people at work?
Develop a baseline understanding and awareness of the people to recognize when something changes and then explore what that might mean.
One reader of my book told me he had a good relationship with his boss and the boss said ‘Hi’ every morning. One morning, the boss’s door was closed and this man didn’t think much of it. The next morning, the door was closed. The third morning, it was open, and the man said ‘Hi’ and his boss just glanced. Looking back, he realized something was going on. The company was planning a series of layoffs and he was part of it.
That shift in tone had occurred two weeks before. If he had paid more attention to things, he would’ve had a much better sense of what was happening rather than getting totally sideswiped by what ultimately occurred.
What’s the upside of playing workplace poker well for older workers?
You will protect what you have and either prevent a surprise job loss or give you a greater line of sight so you are more likely to achieve your full career potential.
What are the biggest mistakes employees make in workplace poker?
Not recognizing the game exists and thinking their workplace colleagues are your friends and family. They are not. If you need proof, think of a job you left and how many of the people there you’re still connected with today. Your family doesn’t say: ‘We’re going to have to let you go.’
What advice do you have specifically for workers in their 50s and 60s?
If you’re tagged as someone who your colleagues say: ‘We’ll work around him; he’s not good with tech,’ well, it’s a career killer. But I realize how difficult it is. Tech comes so easy to young people; older people have to work hard at it.
When the time comes for layoffs and the company looks at the balance sheet, you don’t want them to say: What does he or she bring to the business? You want there to be no question what value you bring and you want to find ways to continually bring new value.
You say that to play workplace poker well, you need to promote yourself — especially if you’re an older worker. Why?
If you’re in the back end of your career, go into hyperdrive with self-promotion — not to be a braggart but to reinforce for others the value you’re bringing. I know that rubs many people the wrong way. But it’s worth the trouble. If you don’t do it, you put yourself at risk.
How can older workers play workplace poker better?
For most older workers, the huge value they bring to the business is invisible: knowledge and experience. They have a potential tendency to be naysayers and scolds: ‘We tried that before and it didn’t work.’
You have to avoid that. Instead, use your knowledge to develop ‘the innovative Yes.’ If you understand why something proposed won’t work, say that but share an idea of how it can be modified so it does work. You don’t want to be the guy they don’t invite to meetings; you want to be the guy they want to invite for new ideas.
You recommend people give themselves an energy assessment and you have a tool on your website to do it. What is an energy assessment and how can it be useful?
It’s important for older workers especially. I know I am not the guy I was in my 20s or 30s; there is a degradation of physical and mental energy.
So anything we can do to push back the hands of time will serve us well. Exercise is good, but a lot of it comes down to diet. I’ve seen many cases where people turned their physical energy around in their 50s and that made all the difference in the world to their career.
You say employees need to work on what you call their ‘daily billboard.’ What do you mean and how should they?
As we walk into the workplace, we are our daily billboard. Over time, our billboards can degrade as we get more casual and our career progresses. It’s every aspect you bring to the office: polish it up and be a little crisper, more put together than the average person.
What do you tell people who hate office politics or think they aren’t good at it?
I tell them: Office politics is a lot like sex. If you find it uncomfortable or painful, you’re probably doing it wrong. Most of us have disdain for office politics because we don’t do it right.
There is a way to promote yourself in the workplace positively, ethically and graciously, but it requires thought and true effort.
I spoke to a man last week in his mid-50s, who looks like he’s in his mid-40s. He said: ‘I have some dirty secrets.’ I color my hair; I work hard at keeping my weight down; I struggle with technology, but I work at it and when I learn something new, I find ways to let people know. I make sure my LinkedIn profile looks as sharp as anyone else’s in the company. I work every week to burnish my image in the business; it’s a hundred little things I do each week to remind people of me and the value I bring. I know I’m swimming upstream and as I get older, the stream is flowing faster in the opposite direction. It takes more work every year to put this together.’
That’s the mindset I hope to encourage people to adopt.