‘Workplace Poker’: How To Get Ahead By Managing Office Politics

Most people believe that hard work and skill are the ingredients to career success. They are right, but only to a certain extent. To get promoted, they must also pay attention to office politics — the human dynamic present in the workplace — whether it is dysfunctional or not. Dan Rust, author of “Workplace Poker: Are you Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?” posits that people must learn to play the “game under the game” because an office’s unspoken rules often decide who gets ahead. He joined Wharton Business Radio’s [email protected] show to explain more. The segment recently aired on SiriusXM Channel 111.

Workplace Poker

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: How many people right now are rolling craps in the workplace and don’t know how to avoid it?

Dan Rust: I think what they’re doing, more than anything else, is not rolling the dice at all or not playing the game at all. Many of us, when we first went into the world of serious adult work, either consciously, overtly or subtly, were given basically the expectation that if you’re talented, if you’re ambitious, if you work hard and continuously improve, that’s the combination that’s going to get you career acceleration. And your continuous improvement adds to your talent base. So, it basically becomes talent-ambition-hard work equals career acceleration.

But the reality is that’s only half of the game. What happens to many people is they never accept that there’s this human dynamic game going on under the surface that is just as important and requires just as much attention as the actual talent that you bring to the table. … If you’re one of those people who holds up your nose and says, “Well you know what, I don’t play … politics,” or “I don’t play games like that. I’m going to keep my head down and do my work.” It’s just a career killer. Because eventually, you’re going to reach a point where almost everyone has enough talent, has an equal level of talent, the talent that’s critical to the business. What separates those folks whose careers continue to accelerate rapidly is the human element.

[email protected]: Is it that companies are expecting more, or they’re expecting a little bit of that give-and-take from employees, and that shows a level of personal investment in the company? Because it feels like if you do the work and do it well, that you should be recognized and you shouldn’t have to toot your own horn to get that.

There’s a tough dynamic that smacks some people in the face when the world of work isn’t what they were taught in their MBA program.

Rust: You can say, “Well, it should be this way.” One of the tough conversations I often have with people when we’re talking about their specific careers and the companies that they’re working for is that there are a lot of the “shoulds.” I completely agree with them. I say, “You know, that would be great. But we’re human beings. We’re flawed, we’re arbitrary sometimes, we’re not always logical. You can’t expect that business is going to be this perfect monolith of everything the way it should be.”

If you can manage to step back and stop expecting things to be different than they are, and truly just say, “All right, I’m going to accept the world of work as it is. I’m going to flow with whatever exists. And I’m going to be discerning, but not judgmental. I’m going to see the flaws in others, but not roll my eyes at them. Instead, I’m almost going to be like Jane Goodall.”

If you remember Jane Goodall, in the 1970s she was studying chimpanzee behavior. If you read through her actual notebooks, she observed horrendous behavior in chimpanzees at certain points. I mean, chimpanzees killing each other. Murdering each other’s babies. Chimpanzee rape, all kinds of things. But she simply observed without judgment. I’m not saying that we are apes in the workplace. Maybe some of us are, but mostly we’re not apes in the workplace. But my point is she was very objective in observing. So, if you can step back and just say, “I’m going to set the judgment aside,” it’s amazing how that one step alone clears your eyes. You start to see things that you never saw before in terms of the dynamics because you’re no longer bringing your expectations into the picture.

[email protected]: Do people realize that these are skills they probably want to develop when they’re young so they have them ready to go when they’re in the workplace full time for the first time?

Rust: I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve said to me, “Man, I wish I had read Workplace Poker 10 years ago or 15 years ago. The lessons in the book, the stories in the book, they reflect my real world. Unfortunately, I had to learn those lessons the hard way.” Or, “I had those experiences and never really discerned the lessons within them. I’ve been complaining about that particular boss for eight years. When I look back now, and I think it through within the perspective of the book, I realize, ‘Oh, there’s a lesson in there. There’s actually some learning that I needed to evolve.’”

In fact, I would say as your career evolves and progresses, this book becomes more and more and more important because the subtleties of the human element become much more critical when you’re at middle and senior levels. But it’s those early years. For myself, my son is just about to go into college. I realize it’s too soon for me to try to bring to him a real-world perspective on the world of corporate work, and I don’t want to kill off his enthusiasm. But there’s a tough dynamic that smacks some people in the face when the world of work isn’t what they were taught in their MBA program.

[email protected]: But if your son is going into college right now, he needs to know that in the next two years. So many kids are looking to do an internship … with a company. Understanding that dynamic helps them so that they’re able to get that first job.

Being willing to evolve as a person and evolve your personality over time, it’s a huge career enhancer.

Rust: What I have seen is that with some younger people who have read the book, they’re a little shocked or surprised at what’s in it. Sometimes I wish I had known that sooner, and I’d gone back and maybe softened some of the chapters. Because it can be a splash of cold water when you read some of these stories.

Let’s just take college internships. Most colleges have huge numbers of intern opportunities or ways to help you get internships. But who gets the best internships? Who gets the ones that are actually going to grow your career? It’s that first pinch point in terms of your ability to influence or persuade your career. There’s a great case for leveraging human dynamics to find out what are the good ones and then

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