Do you know what your teams tells are? If the term ‘tell’ is unfamiliar, it comes from the card game, poker. 

Poker, like leadership, is entirely based on human interaction. And it’s the clues or tells in a person’s demeanour that provides indications of the strength or weakness of the cards they have in their hand. 

Identifying your team’s tells is critical to gauging internal momentum. I also think it’s the first step in understanding how to circuit-break stress and learn more about why they decided to work for you in the first place. 

I apply the same philosophy to understanding my team’s tells as I do when building products.  In product development, my objective is to move people closer to happiness or move them away from fear. In my mind, the same rule applies to the momentum of a team building a startup.

Where cash is tight, fires are burning and you’re in the cut and thrust of uncertainty, the rate at which a team can learn and effectively communicate will determine success. 

If a team or a team member is moving away from happiness or closer to fear, momentum will slow and tells will start to emerge. And in my experience, tells are unconscious, reliable and for the most part, hide in plain sight.

He (or she) always does that

I was talking to my friend and colleague Megan Flamer about this recently. Megan is a serial entrepreneur and mindfulness expert, and we talked about what to look for in a person’s tell. 

Unlike poker where tells are often subtle, tells in life and at work can range from subtle to verbose and outrageous. 

The trick is to look for behaviours that occur outside the norm. 

An example of a subtle tell might be a team member going to get coffee three times in one day when they are generally content with one coffee per day. 

A less subtle tell might be a team member ranting about a situation that they find unacceptable when they are ordinarily level-headed.

‘He (or she) always does that’, can be a normal reaction to either tell. I take that statement to mean people are observing a behaviour but stopping short of understanding why it manifest in the first place. 

And herein lies the cue to learn more. 

Learning about a tell

There are several ways to try and understand why a person’s tell has come to the surface. 

I’m no psychologist, but I have developed a curiosity for learning about my team’s tells and those of my partners, investors and mentees. 

There are some circumstances where you can ask, why? Even though it’s not a closed question, it does have the potential to be perceived as confrontational. 

There are three words that I have come to rely on to learn more about a tell. Ironically, they have also been used on me when my tells have come to the surface. 

Those three words are ‘talk to me.’

This statement, possibly made famous by Maverick when talking to Goose in Top Gun, is a neutral offer to start a conversation. 

It comes with no expectation but a desire to help. 

My team and people close to me know that I often make this statement when I observe their tell. A conversation may start with ‘talk to me’ as my opening statement, or it might begin with, ‘I could see you were a little upset this morning, talk to me’.

The main benefit of these words is that if the person isn’t ready to talk, they know that you care enough to ask. 

Your working relationship is an alliance

Understanding the tells of a team member is essential to a healthy relationship. It’s also a two-way street. Leaders have tells. Team members have tells. And team members should develop the confidence to say ‘talk to me’ to their managers. 

That’s because, and as I’ve written about before, a working relationship is an alliance. People no longer spend the majority of their career at that same company or the same industry. When someone interviews to join my team, I make it clear that their time at the company will be a tour of duty. As part of the hiring process, we make sure that their objectives (and their next job) are well known. By understanding their incentives and by them knowing yours, you can work to help achieve each other’s goals. 

I raise this here because understanding incentives in the context of an alliance can also help to identify, understand and work through each other’s tells. 

One last thing…

There are two choices when you see a team member do something a little out of the ordinary. Do nothing and shrug it off as a behaviour that manifests in times of stress. Or identify and understand the tell. 

I recommend the latter. 

Because it’s human and it helps to galvanise relationships, build trust and accelerate momentum.

These qualities are as essential in a startup as they are in life. 

Try saying ‘talk to me’ and see what happens.