What managers can learn from poker players

09 November 2015 -


Research shows that the world’s best poker players share many traits with great business leaders. But what can you learn from poker stars to help do your job better?

Guest blogger, Greg Dinkin

It’s fair to say the majority of business leaders, managers and dedicated employees, whatever their field, want to make good decisions and deliver good results. To do that they need the right skills, knowledge, support and mental attitude. It’s also fair to say most people don’t want to rest on their laurels either. We all want to grow and achieve more.

The question many managers face is how best to do that, not only for the people they manage but for themselves too. We can send employees on a training course, a team building exercise, or offer them one-to-one coaching. All of these things can help, but what happens when they don't deliver the hoped-for change? It's time to look for out of the ordinary alternatives.

Believe it or not, developing the skills and attitude of the world's best poker players could deliver the change we’re looking for. Why poker players? Because they share at least 13 skills with the world's best business people.

So what are these 13 skills? They’re not voodoo, black magic or sorcery that’s for sure. They’re much more everyday than you might have thought. They range from having a win-win attitude, being able to walk in other people’s shoes and imagine the type of decisions they might make, and choosing to think “it depends” instead of relying on absolute rules when it comes to assessing risk and opportunity.

Let’s take a closer look at three skills in particular.

Winners are forward thinking, recognize sunk costs, and take small losses

In business, life and poker, sometimes the hand we are dealt is not in our favour. These swings, as poker players and investors call them, are part of the game. What matters is how we respond.

Just like anyone, top poker players don’t enjoy the bad times, but their ability to manage their emotions and remember that losing - sometimes - is part of the deal is vital; they don’t overreact to short-term losses.

They make the most of what they have and turn disadvantage to their advantage.

Analyse decisions, not outcomes

Winning poker players are lifelong learners who analyse decisions, not outcomes. They understand success comes from rational decisions based on the quantity and quality of the information available at the time.

They deal with adversity by continuing to analyse their processes and the quality of their decisions, instead of being swayed by sudden negative events or similar things they couldn’t have known or planned for.

The same skill can be used in business. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a nasty email that puts us in a foul mood. What we decide to do next could make things worse or keep things on an even keel. Some of us might fire off a curt reply and feel better for it. If we put on our poker face however, we would know to hold back.

Leave the email alone. Wait an hour. Or better still, wait a day. Then, when we’re not feeling quite so hot under the collar, send a more thoughtful response. By deciding to delay our response, we’d be making a better decision.

Winners choose the right game and are market-driven rather than ego-driven

The best poker players choose the right table and game based on a cool assessment of the competition and the conditions i.e. they are market-driven rather than ego-driven.

They also recognise they don’t need to be world-class in everything they do, as long as they’re not playing against other world-class players.

In that sense, their success is a function of being better than the competitors at their table, not being the best at every table or winning every game. The same applies to business, the ability to choose the right market to operate in and the right companies to compete with is a crucial skill to have.

It’s easy to see the same skills in a first-class business mogul such as Richard Branson: he’s a strategic thinker, shrewd decision maker, and a good enough actor to fake it and win.

Poker players and entrepreneurs deploy these skills consistently too, which means their performance and success isn’t down to the luck of the draw or some other random event, it’s down to practice and dedication.

Better skills lead to better business

The best thing about these skills is realising they can be learned and applied to almost any person and business. There is nothing exclusive about them. Any manager could learn these skills and as a result become a better manager of their own performance.

And, as Nobel-prize winning author George Bernard Shaw once said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."

Greg Dinkin is a renowned TEDx speaker, author of four books, and highly respected decisions coach. You can read more about the relationship between business and poker in his free e-book written in partnership with PokerStars: All In - Skills for winning in poker, business and life

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