From the Poker Table to the Boardroom Table — Avoid Tilt to Make Good Decisions

What do human resources management and poker have in common? Not much. After the cards are fairly dealt in poker, bluffing, deception, and lying are a part of the game. Not so in HR, where honesty is always the best policy. But there is one lesson HR pros can learn from poker pros: recognize and fight the instinct to tilt.

No ‘loco’ emotion

Emotional control and mental equilibrium are essential for good poker judgment. “Tilting,” or “going on tilt,” in poker parlance, describes a state of mental confusion or frustration that causes a player to make poor decisions. Tilt is usually brought on by losing, particularly as a result of a “bad beat,” such as having an opponent draw an unlikely winning card late in the hand, or being defeated in humiliating fashion. Poker players can also be put on tilt as a result of another player’s erratic play or irritating behavior.

Poker players must learn to keep bad beats from influencing the way they play the next hand. The cards have no memory, of course, and each hand is an independent event. Good players win by playing each hand correctly, on its own terms, without attempting to make up for a prior bad hand or loss.

How can managers and HR pros go on tilt? Consider the following examples (all from real life cases and experiences):

  • Your company promotes an up-and-coming employee to become its first female senior vice president. A year later, she announces she’s pregnant. She misses work intermittently because of complications with the pregnancy. After the baby is born, she takes a six-week maternity leave. She then returns to work on a part-time basis for several weeks before deciding to resign to become a stay-at-home mom. When the process to find a replacement begins, the company president complains about being “burned” and makes it clear he’s never going to allow another woman, at least one of child-bearing age, into senior management. Tilt.
  • One of your employees hurts his back and files a workers comp claim. Three months later, the doctor says he’s fully healed and releases him back to work with minimal restrictions. You can accommodate the restrictions, but you find an excuse to give him a “lay off” because you’re steamed about the workers comp claim, or because you’re worried he might get hurt again and file another claim. Tilt.
  • You find one of your subordinates extremely annoying. Your personalities clash. One day you receive a report that the subordinate has engaged in misconduct. You call her into your office. In response to your first question, she makes a smart aleck comment. You blow a gasket and fire her on the spot. Tilt.

Strategies for overcoming tilt

How can you avoid going on tilt in making employment decisions? The strategies used by poker players translate well to the HR world.

First, be aware that it’s human tendency to tilt and have enough self-awareness to recognize when it begins to happen. As poker pro Andy Bellin quipped, “I pride myself on never tilting, but I tilt all the time.” It may be cliché, but the only way to deal with a problem is to admit it exists.  

Second, if you find yourself going on tilt, take steps to defuse it. A poker player who recognizes she is starting to tilt will often leave the table to clear her head and come back when emotions have subsided. You can do the same thing in the workplace. If an investigation interview or disciplinary meeting seems to be getting out of hand, politely call time out until everyone has cooled down. Rather than immediately terminating an insubordinate or uncooperative employee, consider suspending him with pay so you can conduct a complete investigation and make a rational, well-reasoned disciplinary decision, after reviewing the employee’s file, applicable policies, and prior actions in similar situations, and after running it by your lawyer and others on the HR or management team.    

Finally, understand that HR management, like poker, is about making the right decisions over a long period of time. Bad beats are a result of variance, not bad strategy, so don’t let them unduly influence future decisions. This does not mean you shouldn’t try to learn from and correct your mistakes, of course. The key is to analyze each bad outcome and determine whether it was the result of a bad decision or simply a bad beat. Talk to an employment lawyer or HR pro if you need help assessing which one it was.

He said it

“The mark of a top player is not how much he wins when he’s winning but how he handles his losses.” Bobby Baldwin, 1978 World Poker Champion

Boyd A. Byers

Foulston Employment Law Attorney