Do You Have a “Leadership Tell”?

In poker, a tell is when a payer gives away their feelings about their cards. In leadership, you should also be careful of a tell - hopefully for another reason

Do You Have a Leadership Tell Like a Poker Tell?In the game of poker, a “tell” is when a player gives away their feelings or emotion about the cards they hold. Typically this is done subconsciously, but if done consistently, may be used against them by other players. For example, if one player leans backward every time they get a bad hand, other players at the table know to raise the stakes every time that individual leans back in their chair. In leadership, you should also be careful of a tell – though hopefully for another reason.

Why a Tell is Bad for Leadership

For leaders, having a tell can result in missed opportunities, a lack of trust or other detrimental impacts to the team. For example, if the team perceives you are opposed to an idea before you hear the details, you may never hear the full explanation. In other examples, a leader perceived as revealing a tell regarding potential organizational changes or legal matters yet to be decided, could result in rampant rumors or worse.

The Blackberry Leadership Tell

I once worked for an executive who was famous for looking down at her blackberry whenever she did not like what she was hearing. It seemed everyone knew this. So, if someone had a great idea, but saw her look down at the blackberry, they would immediately drop the topic and suggest an alternative. This would often resume until the blackberry was set back on the table. I wonder how many great ideas were missed because she had to respond to an urgent email.

The Facial Expression Leadership Tell

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Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly In The Devil Wears Prada
Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly

Other common tells in leadership are the result of facial expressions. Often when providing feedback to team members, I describe the nonverbal cues they reflect that could be perceived the wrong way. Often, the individual is not even aware they are doing this. The most common is eye rolling or arm-crossing. A famous facial cue was in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada“. In this movie, Miranda Priestly, the demeaning, controlling and overly demanding executive is known for a few facial expressions that tell an entire story. As one employee explains to another, the scale of Miranda’s facial expressions:

Nigel: There’s a scale. One nod is good, two nods is very good. There’s only been one actual smile on record and that was Tom Ford in 2001. If she doesn’t like it she shakes her head. Then of course there’s the pursing of the lips.
Andy Sachs: Which means?
Nigel: Catastrophe.

How To Determine If You Have a Tell

In contrast to the examples I gave above, most tells are subconscious. Therefore, you will need to enroll the help of a friend or trusted adviser. Ideally, this is not a direct report but is someone at you primary job. Alternatively, you could ask someone from other areas, such as meetings at church, a board you sit on or in a professional development group such as Toastmasters. Ask them to watch you closely and let you know if:

1. Bad News: You respond in the same manner when you receive bad news. For example, do you consistently frown, tighten your muscles, lean forward or back?

2. Good News: You respond in a similar way each time you hear something good. For example, do you smile, lean in or relax your muscles? These are more common and more of a concern when your perception of something as good is actually a negative – such as if a deal fell through you did not support.

3. Perceptions: Possibly most important, do you have a reputation for any tells? In the two examples above, both executives tells were well known and watched for closely. Does the team speak in a similar manner of you?

Having a tell is not terrible. However, it could become an issue in specific scenarios. The key is to be aware of your own leadership tell and watch out for it. Once you know if you have one, you can be careful to control it in sensitive situations.

Questions: Do you have a tell? Do you know a leader that does? How has it helped or hurt the team as a result?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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