The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 56

Dan Rust

Workplace Poker

What’s the secret to getting ahead farther and faster in your workplace? Dan Rust says that you have to do your job well and manage the human dynamics of your workplace. For his book, Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?, Dan interviewed hundreds of extraordinarily successful people who got ahead without a special advantage. Learn two techniques for dealing with unfair treatment, a practical strategy for making peace with the people who give you problems, and the secret benefit of “working with jerks.”


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Book: Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?
Bio: Dan Rust is the founder of Frontline Learning, an international publisher of corporate training resources. For more than twenty years Dan has been writing and speaking on a variety of career management topics. His award-winning keynote speeches and workshops focus on employee engagement, productivity, and career management.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. Dan Rust is here with us today. He’s the founder of Frontline Learning which is an international publisher of corporate training resources.

For our purposes, most importantly, he is the author of the recent book, ‘Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?’ Dan has a refreshing style. He’s a funny, smart writer, and as you’ll see from this podcast, he has a very clear-sighted view of what life in the workplace is like and how to succeed in the reality of many corporations today. Dan, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: Peter, it’s great to be with you. I do have to tell you that every time someone introduces me as being funny or humorous, later on, when my wife hears this, she rolls her eyes because she says to me, “That’s all you need is more encouragement.”

Peter: Yeah, and it becomes harder. I remember Larry David once being called a ‘Genius’ in an article, and he rejected it, he said, “That’s the death. That’s like the nail in the coffin.” Never –

Dan: Yes. You want low expectations.

Peter: Dan, in a few words, the big idea of this book?

Dan: The big idea is that your job, if you really are going to manage your career proactively isn’t just to do your job well. Your job is to do your job well and manage all of the human dynamics within that workplace in order to accelerate your career trajectory, and people who ignore that oftentimes do so at their peril. They may not experience something dramatically negative, but over the years, then they’d come to realize that their trajectory has somewhat flat-lined or they may notice that there are others in their business or in other businesses whose career trajectories are much higher, and oftentimes, those people aren’t as talented or aren’t as hard-working, or aren’t as whatever, so truly, if you are focused on a high trajectory career progression, you got to manage both halves. You got to do your job really well, you had to be talented, and you got to manage the people, relationships around you every single day.

Peter: You bring up a question that I had as I was reading the book which is if you look up above you in the organization and you see people who are behaving badly, how did they get there? And if you’re trying to act in a savvy way, do you end up duplicating what they do in creating a dysfunctional organization, because these people obviously were successful?

Dan: Some people do that, and that’s not typically my advice, but some people do, and unfortunately for many of us, it still works for them up to a certain point. What I have found is that you can have really talent-challenged leaders who have people below them who are emulating some of their really negative practices. That’ll work up to a certain point, but when you reach a critical mess within a business where everyone is just playing a game and you really have a talent deficit, then you tend to see businesses crumble. My approach is to observe that person, to think about that person, and find a way to not necessarily play the same game they’re playing, but understand you’re going to have to play some sort of game. You are going to have to work with them unless you choose to move on to somewhere else, so if you got to play the game, I say play it really, really well, but you can play it in an ethical, positive, productive manner.

You can even play it in a manner where it builds your skills and preps you for your next thing, whatever that might be, whether in that company or in another company. Whenever I see a really again, talent-challenged leader, I remind myself that there is a reason they are where they are, that nothing happens by accident, and sometimes when you peel the layers away if you can, you discover that they are where they are because of connections, or because of family, or because of whatever reason. Sometimes those reasons are things you can learn from and duplicate. Sometimes they’re not, but nothing happens by accident, even the talent-challenged people who do progress well. It happens for reasons.

Peter: The danger of replicating poor behaviors is that you may not have the positive behavior. In other words, everybody comes with a mix, and you may end up just replicating poor behavior, but not excelling in an area that they particularly excel at which just leaves you pretty much all negative.

Dan: I worked with a guy who was an incredibly abrasive boss to his particular team, and he was proud of his abrasion. He was proud of his gruff, rough demeanor, and he had others beneath him who began to emulate some of that behavior, but what none of them understood was that that guy had a deep, long-standing connection with his boss, the owner of the company, so he could get away with being a jerk, being abrasive, and he was pretty much golden no matter what, and the people who were emulating him though who didn’t have that same connection, a lot of them ultimately suffered in their careers within that company without even understanding why it wasn’t working for them the same way.

Peter: It’s a great example. The other danger I’ve seen is that you emulate certain behavior, and then senior leadership changes, and you’ve been emulating behavior that’s no longer acceptable within the organization.

Dan: Yeah, or senior leadership is capricious, and they love the behavior in themselves. They just don’t care for it when they see it in other people. They can be completely clueless regarding the irony behind that, but I’ve had many examples of senior leaders who basically had a view of the world, “Certain things are good for me, but not for you”, and vice versa. We have to accept that again, it may not be right, it may not be comfortable, but you have to be paying attention to what is real within your business and the undercurrents of what leadership is expecting and accepting from people within the business in order to manage your own career.

Peter: Let’s get specific. You use this beautiful metaphor of ballet in a minefield that really presents a visual image of what people are often trying to do in organizations. In that section, you talk about hugging haters and bonding with backstabbers. I read it and I thought to myself, “Yeah, that sounds really smart. But it’s really hard to do.” Do you have any advice for people or examples of how you’ve seen it done well?

Dan: Peter, as you read through the book, a lot of the advice and the tips and strategies are simple in concept and really hard to do. Hard because, I mean, really who wants to hug the jerk who … Metaphorically, who wants to hug the jerk? Who wants to if you’re at a social event, a business social event, and people are sitting around a table, who wants to go sit next to the guy that you know has been talking bad about you to other people? These are behaviors that are counterintuitive and we don’t want to do them, but the big revelation for me when I set out to write the book, I interviewed hundreds of individuals who had high trajectory careers where I knew based on their career path, they clearly had succeeded well beyond the average person with their level of education and their type of background, and I screamed out the hyper successful.

I really think when you talk about a Richard Branson or Elon Musk, or other hyper successful people, you set those aside because in many cases, what worked for them is not duplicatable. It’s not going to work for you. I wanted to talk to normal people who had normal high trajectory careers, but as I got to know them and as they came to trust me through a series of interviews, in some cases, I found that the real secret to their success, the secret sauce so to speak was something that wasn’t duplicatable. It was either connections or family background or money, or … It was something that just wasn’t easily duplicatable, but then within that, I found a subset of people who clearly had created the success that they were experiencing, and within those people, I found the attitude that we were talking about of accepting the reality of working with flawed people, accepting the reality that anyone can work with great people.

If you’ve got a team or a workplace where everyone is positive and productive and hardworking, that’s great, but anybody can work there. What really separates great leaders and great career climbers is their ability to work with the jerks, their ability to work with tough people, their ability to work with people who don’t necessarily want to work with them very well. Now, coming to that realization, okay, that’s one thing. Actually being able to do it is another. It isn’t easy, but I found that one of the keys is understanding that this is part of your career growth path, learning to work with these tough people, and then you find when you do engage with them, when you spend more time with them instead of less, because what’s the natural reaction?

Avoid the jerk. Walk around her or walk around him. Don’t spend time … Don’t take him to lunch. I had a great learning experience many years ago where a manager …

I was having a difficulty with a colleague, and my manager said, “Look. Take him to lunch. Just get to know him.” I didn’t want to, and he didn’t like me. I didn’t like him, but when your boss says, then you do, so I took him out to lunch.

There was no great revelation. It was not a great lunch. We chatted, but it was all very formal. I came back and I reported to my boss and said, “It’s okay, but nothing major happened”. My boss said, “Do it again”.

“Oh, man. Okay. Fine”, and we did it again. It was a little better, but again, this is just not my kind of guy. Not someone I would normally socialize with. Reported back to my boss the next week, and he said, “Hey, let me know when you do it again”.

Now, he forced me to engage with this guy at a different level, and over the course of … It was about four and a half months. We went to lunch four or five times. Eventually, we both got it eventually that we’re going to have to keep doing this until we get along and it’s never going to end until we at least crack the wall with each other, and that wall began to crack. I would say we never became best friends, but we became much more comfortable with each other, and I eventually really can begin to understand there were causes of some of his behavior.

Sometimes, once you crack the code on an individual and you realize, “Oh, it’s not that he is a jerk”, it’s because of fear of something or insecurity about something, or whatever it might be. Once you crack someone’s code and it depersonalized the behavior, it makes it much easier to deal with them in a productive and positive way.

Peter: What if he, that other person, doesn’t want to play along? Meaning, in this case, it was a mandate from your boss and both of you show up, but what if you’re inviting someone to lunch and they just aren’t willing to engage?

Dan: In some cases, you are going to have someone who just doesn’t want to play or they want to play, but you know, and this is also a harsh reality. There are evil people in the workplace. There are people who will take every effort you make to turn it positive and will work to turn it against you. If you have a sense that you’re working with someone like that, you still have to engage with them or want to engage with them. What I would normally do is I would make sure that my boss understood the effort that I was making, so if it becomes clear to the person I’m reporting to that there’s a little bit of abrasion with someone, and I am reaching out to engage with them, and I make it clear that I’m not throwing them under the bus, I’m not tattling on them, I’m just updating my boss on the progress or lack thereof as I try to develop a positive working relationship, even if there’s no progress at all to our actual working relationship, I’ve still enhanced my brand with my boss because of the effort that I’ve made.

Peter: There’s this great distinction that you’re making that I think is very important around the difference between this kind of game and a game like poker. In this game, you’re not trying to beat someone else, you can be happy if they succeed along with you, even if they’re a jerk. You’re not trying to prove to anybody that they’re a jerk – that’s actually a losing game. You’re trying to get along with the jerk so that you don’t have the negative consequences of having enemies in the workforce, and I imagine that’s a difficult challenge for some people who want everybody to know what a jerk that other guy is. But that would only reinforce a dynamic that hurts you.

Dan: Without a doubt. If you can become known as the person who is at least somewhat better able to work with the difficult people, that’ll enhance your reputation and brand throughout the business whether you’re successful or not with any particular individual. I work in a business where the key leader, the senior leader wanted to have a book reading club as part of leadership development, and he asked for suggestions, and I suggested a book called ‘Crucial Conversations’. The reason I suggested it is because I knew there were a lot of issues that that book would help us deal with as a leadership team. We read through it and discussed it.

Over the course of four months as we were reading that book and then discussing various chapters within that book, I knew it was clear to many people in the room as we discussed each chapter, that what I was trying to draw out from our senior leader was his tendency to create an environment where people didn’t talk openly about tough issues. I didn’t mash it in his face, but what did happen is other people were reading a particular chapter. We were discussing. We were asking questions, and there was somewhat of an elephant in the room. This guy’s level of abrasion.

I never really was able to change him. He started out as an abrasive jerk. He ended as an abrasive jerk, but I know my reputation with everyone else in that group was enhanced considerably because they could see my … I would call it a ‘Gracious attempt’ to help him see himself in a different way. Even though it was totally unsuccessful for my career purposes, it ultimately helped drive me forward.

Peter: You tell a very instructional story I think, the 14-year old who received the Facebook message, “You’re stupid and nobody likes you”. I’d love for you to retell that here if you remember it.

Dan: I do. Sure.

Peter: I think it goes to this challenge that many people have of, “How do you get along with the jerk?” I think this speaks to that somewhat.

Dan: What I love about the story is it was something I experienced personally, not the 14-year old was not my child. I was actually but a parent of another child in the school, but this 14-year old receives a message that basically says, “You’re a jerk. Nobody likes you.” That child’s parents went into hyper drive, reaching out to the school, wanting to find out who did this, what’s up with this. The child was crushed by the message, didn’t want to go back to school.

It was this whole downward spiral emotionally, and only after there was a brief investigation to find out what the source of the message was, what they ultimately discovered is that that message had been sent out as a broadcast message to 50 students in the school. It wasn’t really aimed at any one particular person. It was again not a good thing to do, but it was more of a blast out message to everyone, and most of the kids got it and went, “Whatever”, and move on. Just for most, it didn’t even faze them because first of all, they didn’t know who it was from, and it just rolled off of their backs, but for this one kid, it really crushed him. That’s not a good thing.

It’s a horrible thing, but then I used that as a metaphor in our world particularly at work when there are times where we are all wronged. Everyone of us can point to things that have happened where we were treated poorly, where we were commented on behind our backs, or in some other way, we were wronged. That’s going to happen, but what separates the high trajectory career paths from your average and below average is the reaction to that. I’m not saying you should just always let evil commentary roll off your shoulders, but most of the time, you should, and you have to make a distinction between really, really bad behavior and evil behavior. I would never tell someone who’s being seriously sexually harassed.

I would never say, “Oh, just let it roll off your shoulders”. Of course, there are certain behaviors where you have to dig in and address them, but for the most part, 95% of the bad behavior, your reaction to that behavior can either accelerate your career or it can diminish it. For me, what I’ve learned is that’s the first question to ask. “What behavior, what reaction is going to accelerate my career trajectory, and what actions might diminish it?”, and think that through before deciding how you’re going to react.

Peter: I can imagine a lot of listeners thinking, “Yes. Absolutely. I agree with you a hundred percent.” How? How do I let something roll off, because somebody does something to me or something happens, and I perseverate over it and I think about it. Help me figure out how to walk through the world like the 14-year olds that say, “Whatever”, and keep moving.

Dan: There are two techniques. One of them, I addressed in the book, and the other didn’t really make it into the book. The first technique, it’s one your mom probably used. It’s called the ‘Kids in China technique’. Whenever you didn’t want to eat your peas, your mom would say, “There are kids in China with no peas, so eat your peas”.

It does help if you had experienced something bad to step back and remind yourself that within a global context or within a bigger context, the bad thing that happened to you maybe isn’t really so horrible or so awful because there are really, really awful things that are happening to many people in the world, in the workplace, so one is just to remind yourself that, “Yeah, it probably feels really horrible, but in the grand scheme, maybe not so horrible”. The other technique is probably the tougher one, and that is to reach out proactively to take the high road in reaching out to wherever the individual was. What you’ll find oftentimes is that the high road accomplishes two things for you. One is it really does make you feel better about yourself, but it can in fact … I would never say this should be your objective, but it can diminish the other party or the other person.

When you’ve clearly been wronged, but you reach out and take the high road with the other party, it can actually cause them to feel a level of remorse or guilt about whatever it is that it was that they did. I had a guy who I spoke with a couple weeks ago who did not receive a promotion that he’d clearly deserved, and virtually, everyone in the business understood that he deserved, but it was given to another person for purely political reasons. This guy had gone through the interview process. He had interviewed with multiple people within the business. He was pretty sure that he was going to get the promotion because he truly, he was the guy who should be in this new position.

Instead, they hired someone from the outside who wasn’t nearly as skilled, didn’t have nearly the amount of experience, and there were some political reasons that that happened. Now, that guy, the guy who spoke with me could have easily just been ticked off, and he was. He was ticked off. His feelings were hurt. He was frustrated and annoyed, and he said, “So what do I do with all this energy?”

I said, “Okay. First of all, you need to fake it. You need to take the high road and reach back to everyone that you interviewed with, and everyone who was part of making this bad decision, and you need to let them know that you respect their decision, you understand it, and you just want to do whatever you can to help advance your career by bringing value for the business. You want to fight a positive way. Don’t give them the silent treatment. Don’t avoid them, and it’s going to be very hard, but you’re going to take the high road with them.”

This was really, really difficult for him, but he reached out to each of these people, and everyone of them knew pretty much that he was the guy who should be doing the job. Because he took the positive road, and because he took the first step to open the door again to say, “Hey, I just want to set up a quick 15-minute review meeting just to clear the air and make sure that you know I’m still onboard, I am still enthusiastic, and of course, like anybody, my feelings might be a little bit hurt, but I’m moving on and I’m here with you”. Have him making the effort with everyone of those key people. It cleared the air. It definitely established him in their minds as a key player, as someone who was the kind of person that they would want to do, continue to work with long-term, but it was hard, so I don’t know that I have.

You ask, “How do you do it?” It’s never going to be easy. Sometimes, you just have to do it, grit your teeth, and then you find that with a little bit of practice, taking the high road. I don’t say that it ever comes natural to most people, including myself. Very few of us actually are Gandhi on the inside. Very few of us actually are Buddha on the inside, but by acting as if almost faking it to some degree, it can help move us further in that direction.

Peter: It’s a great piece of advice. It reminds me also of this Buddhist tale where there was a monk who was lying in a boat and just looking up at the clouds, and the boat was floating, and then another boat rammed into him and he got so angry, and he jumped up to yell at the person in the other boat until he saw that there was actually no one in the other boat, that it was another boat that was just free-floating in the lake, and suddenly, all of his anger dissipated, because there was no one to get angry at. I think these ways of thinking like, “How bad is this compared to terrible things that happened in business?”, there’s ways of framing things in your head that allow you to be more generous and gracious with the people around you, even if they’re acting poorly and that that generosity makes it easier to act in ways that are in your own best interest.

Dan: I do think in some ways, the younger generations of workers have been set up for frustration because they come out of college with an expectation of the work world that it’s going to be fair and people are going to be a certain way, and it may take … I know it took me decades to become at peace with human flaws, and to come to an understanding that everyone of us has stuff, and to be okay with it. That doesn’t mean you are accepting it fully, but you’re okay with it and you don’t let it get you off track, but I think a lot of younger workers, the first time they experienced a really bad, abrasive boss, their knee-jerk reaction is to quit or to march down to HR, or to in some other way do things that may not serve their careers well. Part of my goal with the book, ‘Workplace Poker’ was to compress decades of real-world work experience into a single volume, and maybe help someone get to that place a little faster than they would have otherwise.

Peter: It’s a great book. One of the things that I most appreciate about the book and the way that you wrote it, Dan is that it’s a very clear-eyed view of the reality of the workplace. It’s saying, “This is what it is”. Not what you hope or wish it were, but this is what it is, and the reality is if you want to succeed in this environment, you have to act in ways that reflect the reality of the environment that you’re in. Dan, I so appreciate you being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

The book is ‘Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?’. As I said, I think it’s a very useful read, but it’s also a very enjoyable read, so it’s definitely a book worth picking up. Dan, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: Hey, thank you, Peter. I appreciate the kind words.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.

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