Not long ago, a friend suffering from old gray mare syndrome (fear of being put out to professional pasture) was telling me about a new hire at her company.
This upstart, whom my friend was supposed to informally mentor, was "scary young and ambitious" and had attended their manager's alma mater to boot. "But I'm not really worried," my friend told me, "because the boss announced her hiring in an e-mail."
My friend's boss, like so many company leaders, has a tell. That's the poker term for habits or physical ticks that give away a player's hand when he or she is trying to bluff. For all their talk of transparency, leaders often try to hide their true thoughts and feelings from employees--because they want to avoid showing favoritism, or they fear people becoming prematurely anxious, or they simply equate an Easter Island-like demeanor with leaderliness. Those with tells, however, aren't nearly as inscrutable as they think they are.
My friend and her colleagues had observed, for example, that their boss tossed off what he considered run-of-the-mill announcements over e-mail. When he was truly excited about a piece of news--such as a slam-dunk hire--he would save it up and present it with great fanfare at a meeting. "Maybe he likes to see our faces because he's sure we'll be as thrilled as he is," my friend speculated. "Maybe he wants to bask in our admiration. It's helpful because we know how to react to things--how excited we're expected to get."
A former boss of mine once confessed to me that he went to happy hours with his staff only when he was worried or feeling insecure. He reasoned that by mixing with employees in a relaxed, alcohol-lubricated environment, he could suss out whether people knew something was wrong. Of course, everyone in on his secret (OK, I may have told a few people) immediately became suspicious whenever he turned up at the bar, so that strategy was a failure.
To some degree, the tenor of each employee's day is affected by the boss's mood. So it's no surprise that your every inflection and eyelash bat becomes fodder for interpretation. Chances are, your staff can read you better than you read yourself. If you work at home when under stress, your employees know it. If you avoid being in the same room with someone you plan to discipline or fire, your employees know it. If you drink coffee only when you're feeling overwhelmed, your employees know it. Of course, they don't want you to know they know, so most won't explicitly acknowledge their concerns. Occasionally one will make a gesture of vague support. Others will duck into the restroom when they see you coming.
Employees also look for concrete clues to what's on your mind: Don't think no one noticed when you traded in your Lamborghini for a Hyundai. But it's the subtle signs that trigger employees' inner analysts. So conduct a personal inventory--maybe ask your second in command--to see whether you have habits or coping mechanisms that reveal more than you mean to. It's a fine thing to have employees who are smarter than you are. But you still want to know you can beat them at cards.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc.editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.