Workplace Poker: Summary & Review

workplace poker book

In Workplace Poker (2016) author Dan Rust shares Machiavellian wisdom and insights on office politics, games colleagues play, and career strategies.

Bullet Summary

  • Work with your boss, but never make it seem like you’re working with him
  • HR and bosses want you to believe the workplace is like a family. But you better not buy that.
  • Too much of a thin skin won’t allow you to maximize your potential and too thick a skin won’t allow you to develop a deep connection. You gotta be closer to the thick skin, but not all the way

Full Summary

About the Author: Dan Rust is a career coach and public speaker.

#1. Observe… Without Getting Emotionally Involved

Dan Rust says that to understand people you have to look at them without getting too emotionally involved and without attaching labels to them.

The moment you label someone “nice” or “jerk”, you start avoiding them, or looking for confirmation… Or don’t look much at all. And you decrease your ability to really understand that person.

You can’t get inside someone else’s head until you get out of your own

Over time you will develop a realistic understanding of people that will become your “baseline” for your observations. Once they deviate from that baseline, you know that you need to pay attention.

The author says that 83% answered they know their colleagues “well” or “very well” in a recent survey. Yet they couldn’t answer basic questions about them.
But to master workplace poker, you need to know the players.
You need to know what’s important to them, how driven are they, how introverted/extroverted they are, and what they think of the company and the boss. Even meet their spouses any time you can.

#2. There is No Family At Work

Businesses love to talk about human resources and some bosses love to talk about their employees like family (as in Onward, the story of Starbucks).

Well, don’t buy that BS.

Employees don’t really matter: it’s their output that matters.
And when it comes to downsizing, there is no family.

So don’t be the laid-off employee who thought he was in a “family”.
There is no family at work: families don’t have an HR department, laws, and etiquette. And families don’t fire people, not even when things go terribly wrong.

There is nothing wrong with it, it’s just the nature of things.

Also, read:

#3. Extreme Corporate Cultures

Dun Rust reviews different types of corporate cultures, and differentiates five of them:

  • Cult of personality

It revolves around the ego of a key decision-maker or founder, with Marissa Mayer and Donald Trump as two examples.

To survive in these companies understand that everything revolves around the boss and everything is about propping up the boss. Understand what he wants and likes, but know that whatever you do it might never be enough.

  • Culture of Contraction

It’s a culture of paranoia where people are always watching their backs.

  • Coliseum Culture

It’s those environments built to maximize the competition among employees. You will see ranking and scorecards to keep employees striving for the top.

  • Perma-Grin Culture

These are cultures where everyone must smile and keep a positive attitude.

  • Inbred Culture

Companies have been around for a while, with leaders who have been in the company for decades. They take pride in their insular environment and in “how we do things over here”.

#4. Maximizing Your Output

Workplace Poker also has a deep, extremely valuable chapter on how to perform at our best.
Some of the information I take away:

  • Schedule a block of work of 90-120 minutes
  • Take a short 15-minute break between sessions (not longer or you’ll have trouble getting back to your task)
  • Enjoy a late afternoon nap of 20 minutes

#5. Strike A Balance Between Emotional Thin-Skinned & Bulldozer Thick Skinned

Some of my favorite parts of Workplace Poker were in the author’s description of personalities.
Particularly I enjoyed the descriptions of what Dan Rust calls “Velcro Butterflies” -very touchy and sensitive to rejection- and “Teflon Rhinos” -nothing penetrates their thick exterior-.

There are a lot of advantages to being thick-skinned, including:

  • Rejections don’t slow you down
  • Not intimidated by influential and powerful people
  • Ignore useless criticism
  • Persevere through obstacles
  • Accept no excuse
  • Drive yourself and people around very hard

However, there are also some drawbacks.
Not allowing the “bad stuff” in also often means that rhinos don’t let the good stuff, which makes it harder for them to develop deep and genuine connections.
People also often feel “railroaded” by their intensity and directness and they choose to avoid them.

In the continuum, the most successful people tend to be on the thick-skinned side, but without going to the extreme.
In the face of rejection, they acknowledge the pain and they’re honest with themselves when they feel the fear of rejection and judgment holds them back.
People who hit the ideal sweet spot also learn to be less reactive, overcoming the butterflies lashing out -internally and with passive-aggressive style– and the rhinos’ shutdowns.

Extreme Rhinos: extreme rhinos tend to do well… For a while. But their extreme overconfidence eventually leads to major mistakes and missteps and to spectacular crashes and burns.

#6. Think Well Of Your Steps

Some people “go with the flow” and tell themselves that “every mistake is a chance to learn”.

Sure, that much is true, but you should still think deeply about important decisions in your life and strive to maximize your potential -and diminish your mistakes-.
What do you choose for your college, first job, career changes, or industry changes… They all have major impacts on your life.

This was particularly eye-opening for me as I saw myself doing some of the mistakes Dan Rust talks about.
For example:

  • Being drawn to the novelty and possibilities and not considering the drawbacks of a new job
  • Need to move away from mistakes by changing job
  • Impatience of moving on and seeing only the positives of a new job

#7. Working Your Boss

Dan Rust has some great tips on how to improve your relationship with your boss.
This is just an appetizer:

  • Let him see you work

If you are too quick on your work though, there is a danger it might seem like it wasn’t complicated enough. You want your boss to think you are quick, not that the job was easy.
The solution is to “romance” the process and sell it as part of your personal branding.
A good way of doing it is to mention the difficulties you have had and overcome in the process:

Hi, I am done with the job. It wasn’t easy to find all the information so I asked Brian from accounting. Some of the figures were missing, but fortunately I could secure a meeting with Cristina and she filled me in on the missing data.

If you finish ahead of time and now are free, say something like this:

I just wanted to let you know that I finished the project ahead of schedule, so I have some extra capacity. Do you know of anyone who could use my help?

This is a double yummy: he gets to know you are done early, that you want to help, and that you respect him so much to ask him first. Now he will put you on what he thinks is the priority, thus further increasing your visibility.

  • Let him know you take extra work

before deciding to help someone on a project you should mention it to your boss. Something like:

I’m planning to help Donna on the Mayfair project, but I wanted to run it past you first just in case there are other projects that you think should be a higher priority, or need a little extra help.

  • Don’t let them see you sweat

If you are having real challenges, it’s best to work on your weaknesses on your own and not let your boss see your mighty struggles.

I remember my very first as a project manager. I had taken over a project way too big for my knowledge and sent the wrong email to all the “important” stakeholders in CC. The previous project manager, who was still responsible for it was furious. He called m up and reamed me on the phone.
As he screamed on the phone, I just kept repeating, calmly “yes. Yes. You’re right. Aha. That makes sense”.
Then I picked up my mobile, called him, apologized, and told him I wasn’t comfortable with his tone.
Why did I do that move?
Because my boss was sitting nearby. And he never got to know of my blunder.

Real-Life Applications

  • Go To Company Events

Always take part in company events, go to after-parties, mingle, and make new friends. It’s not only an opportunity to make friends and deepen your network, but also to observe colleagues in a more natural event.
It was always eye-opening for me to see how your colleagues operate when drunk -and you might even get laid ;)-.

  • Leverage Your Subconscious For Judgement

The author says, righteously, that most of what you read on body language in the media is designed to grab attention more than to enlighten on the subject. The biggest misconception is that specific movements have a specific meaning behind them, but that’s often not true.

Instead, take a brief look at someone and then look away. Chances are that your unconscious will be better at a snap judgment than a conscious look trying to “decode” single gestures.

  • Be Careful Not to Take All The Blame

Taking the blame is what leaders do. It’s what John Maxwell says in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and what the Navy SEALS Willink and Babin say in Extreme Ownership. And they are right.
But many people are not in a position to safely do that, points out Dan Rust, and I couldn’t agree more. Make sure then that you don’t let other responsible people off the hook if that would mean career suicide for you.

  • Don’t Give Space to Enemies

If you have an enemy at work, too nice people will keep a lot of distance out of discomfort. But this gives them room to maneuver against you. It’s best instead to stay very close to them.
Without being aggressive, show you’re not afraid, show they’re not getting under your skin, and show them they better drop it… Because you are no easy target.


  • Some Unneeded (& Pointless) Evolutionary Biology 

The author writes:

In our natural state there are no fat (or even pudgy) humans because they get caught and eaten by predators. There are no unmotivated or disengaged natural humans because, again, they get caught and eaten by predators. And there are no dumb natural humans because, well, ditto.

I don’t particularly agree with that.
The “natural state” is not this perfect environment where everyone’s fit and smart.

  • One Historical Exaggeration

To introduce his “Patton style” the author describes Patton as fighting insurmountable odds. He writes:

Patton’s army had many new and poorly trained soldiers, inadequate equipment, uncertain information about the enemy’s positions, unpredictable weather, and scarce medical supplies.

That makes no sense to me when you consider Patton was fighting an enemy -the Germans- who were in full retreat and in much worse conditions (plus “unpredictable weather?”).
Anyway, this is not a big con, but you know I’m retentive :).


  • Deep, Meaningful Content

I have read many books on social games and workplace politics. And I have the say, the depth and value of content Dan Rust shares in Workplace Poker is really impressive.

  • Deep Psychological Insights

Very good and deep insights, at the level of some of the very best psychology books available.


Workplace Poker is the best book on career advancement that I have ever read at the time of writing this review.

Dan Rust not only tackles the games and politics but also the mindsets of winners and the keys to top performance.

And if that weren’t enough, Dan Rust is also a master storyteller, which makes “Workplace Poker” not only a treasure trove of information but also a truly pleasurable read.

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