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 Knowledge at Wharton show to explain more. The segment recently aired on SiriusXM Channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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 how do you get those career-boosting internships? There is one story in the book about someone who had the mental acuity to begin managing their career four or five years before the career actually started.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do people understand that their personality is at times a hindrance to having a successful career?
Rust: When we talk about all of the skills within the context of workplace poker as the metaphor, in some ways this is very similar to when you read about emotional intelligence and EQ in the workplace. Except that I take a very real-world perspective, an on-the-ground perspective on all of this. What many people are taught in their early years is, “Be yourself. Be who you are and then find the right job for who you are. Find the right company for who you are, where you’re a good fit.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But what I see in the serious career climbers, the people who are absolutely able to have an accelerated career trajectory at a variety of companies, no matter what the business is doing, no matter what the market is doing, they’re able and willing to flex their personalities. They understand that in certain environments, you want to be more data-driven and logical and serious. And in other environments, you want to flex and be a little more inter-personal and a little more of a storyteller. They are willing to not just say, “This is who I am, and they’re going to take me for who I am. If it doesn’t work here, I’m going to find a place where I do work.”
If you’re determined, fine. Do that. I would just say an easier path is the willingness to flex and the willingness to take a hard look at yourself and ask, “Am I really as smart as I think I am? Am I really as charming as I think I am? Am I really as funny as I think I am?” Sometimes our spouses or significant others can be that voice of reason to say, “You know, sometimes you can be a little on the abrasive side.” Being willing to evolve as a person and evolve your personality over time, it’s a huge career enhancer.
“What I find with a lot of people is they get wronged early in their career, and then they hold on to those wrongs.”
Knowledge at Wharton: A woman described being in a retail training program in her 20s and seeing a coworker getting promotions so quickly. She was scratching her head because she was working hard and doing what she thought she should be doing. Years later, she learned her coworker’s father was a very big supplier to the store.
Rust: Sometimes the things that drive us nuts is where you think, “Man, what piece of the puzzle am I missing?” The coworker had this advantage and was leveraging her advantage. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, it just makes it what it is. Oftentimes, there are things happening that we’re not aware of. But what that often means is that you have to be willing to up your game. Let’s say you knew that her father was the supplier at the time. You could choose the path of being frustrated about that and complaining to friends and family and saying, “Oh, that’s just not fair.” Or you could have taken the path of saying, “Well, all right. Then I have to up my game. I have to be so good that I overcome that distinct advantage.”
Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. But you never have the opportunity unless you at least adopt a mental framework of, whatever advantages someone else might have, I have to overcome those. Or I have to compensate for those with either skill, talent, charm, whatever that might be.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. There are going to be times where it just doesn’t work and the other person’s advantage works for them. It’s important not to just hold on to that pain or frustration and complain about it for the rest of your career. What I find with a lot of people is they get wronged early in their career, and then they hold on to those wrongs. It really hurts them because they never let go of the bad feelings, which oftentimes means they don’t learn from that experience.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about personal accountability. That’s a big issue in a lot of companies these days, of owning up to the mistakes that you make and not multiplying the problem of the first mistake with a second.
Rust: Man, this is a tough issue because we live in a team-based work environment. Most of our projects require contributions from a variety of people. And with so many fingers in the pie, it is easy to let yourself off the hook. If I’ve got eight people baking a pie and eight people adding ingredients and doing things, and in the end the pie sucks, it is very easy for me to say, “He did this and she did that. And yeah, maybe I could have done whatever.”
“In some of these businesses, being there too long actually changes your perspective on what’s normal.”
But whenever you get into the mindset of 50/50, what you really mean if you’re honest with yourself is it’s 60/40. The 60 is them. Or 70/30, and the 70 is them. What I recommend, in terms of just pure career enhancement, is own it. Own it unreasonably. If you’re in charge of a project, own it. But even if you’re not in charge of a project. If you’re just expected to be a significant contributor, still own it unreasonably, at 100%. It’s not fair, I wouldn’t say that it’s right, but it is what will build your career. Because you become the person who does own things.
And when they crash, you step forward. Not in a career-killing way. You’re not going to throw yourself on your sword in a career-debilitating way. But the person who is willing to own it is so rare these days that when companies find that quality in someone, it’s definitely something they gravitate toward.
Knowledge at Wharton: What about people making that decision to either stay with a job or leave a job?
Rust: You bring up such a meaty topic. There is no single right answer. I have talked to numerous people who are working in horrible companies for horrible bosses, but they’re doing it for the right reasons. They have a career plan. I spoke with a lady a couple of weeks ago who described to me what I would call a borderline abusive situation. Not sexually abusive, just mentally abusive. But she said, “I’m getting this experience and these contacts.” The most critical thing she shared with me is she said, “I do have an exit strategy. I have a timeline and a plan.” So those circumstances do exist, where you’ve consciously decided to work in a tough environment.
But then I would say what’s more common is working in an environment where you really should get out. What happens with many people is the environment doesn’t become borderline abusive overnight. It’s a slow build. It’s a slow boil where initially it’s just challenging and you’re not really discerning that this is, in fact, unhealthy for you. Then, almost like if you live too long in an asylum, it starts to feel normal to you. In some of these businesses, being there too long actually changes your perspective on what’s normal. You need someone to help you remind yourself, “Wait a minute, this isn’t normal. This isn’t healthy, and it’s time to get out.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What advice would you offer somebody who’s in an internship and discovers it’s really not the field or the kind of work that they wanted to do?
Rust: Take what’s given to you and find a way to excel in that area, even though it’s not what you wanted. Even though it’s not what you planned for. If they’ve got you running doughnuts and you thought it was going to be a whole lot more, find a way to be the best damn doughnut runner they’ve ever experienced. I can tell you that if you can find a way to create unique or new value that was unexpected in that role, that’s going to position you into something that’s more like what you really want.