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How to Read Your Employees' Minds

A businessman holding a question mark in his hands.

​Wouldn't it be great to know what your direct reports are thinking? Imagine walking into a meeting and being able to read their minds. This kind of intel could strengthen your relationships with subordinates, inform your presentations and enhance your career trajectory.

While mind-reading skills seem like a superpower, it's possible to get some insight into what's going on inside someone's head just by paying attention.

You'll have to look hard, though. "Managers often go into the job thinking they're never supposed to share their emotions—they're never supposed to be human," said Paul DeYoung, department chair for the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "So, they force themselves to be stiff, which can make reading signs more difficult."

Pay Attention to Patterns

Your success in "reading" your employees will likely depend on the length of your relationship with each of them, said Michael Reddington, author of The Disciplined Listening Method: How A Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation (Per Capita, 2022).

"The more time you spend with someone, the more history you have," he said. "Not only does it impact how we communicate with each other, but it impacts our ability to accurately evaluate what somebody else is thinking and feeling."

Over time, you become acquainted with a worker's behavioral patterns. If you perceive that an employee is deviating from those patterns—acting out of character, for instance—this presents an opportunity to ask something like, "You don't seem like yourself lately. Is something on your mind? Is something bothering you? Are you concerned about our relationship as a manager and employee?"

Reddington calls this "contextual awareness." "When it comes to evaluating somebody's behavior and communication, there are so many factors that could be impacting" both, he said. An employee might behave out of character because of marital problems, or struggles with children, or financial worries. Or, it could well be that your worker is frustrated or dissatisfied with something at work, or even with you as a manager. You won't know until you ask. The more time you take to get to know your direct reports—perhaps through regular one-on-one meetings where you discuss not just work issues, but also personal ones—the easier it will be as a manager to have that sort of conversation.

Look for Micro-Expressions

Thomas Jones, founder of the online casino, said facial expressions can be revealing. "In poker, we often see players who've mastered the art of the 'poker face' in a bid to hide their emotions," he said. "As a result, deciphering micro-expressions and body language is a key for a manager, and while it definitely takes a lot of practice, it is possible to detect [employees'] emotions."

Micro-expressions arise subconsciously and are difficult to suppress. Jones said to look out for these seven expressions:

  • Surprise: The eyebrows are likely raised and curved. You may notice horizontal wrinkles across the forehead. Notice if their eyelids are open with the white of the eye showing above and below the pupil.
  • Fear: The eyebrows will be raised and drawn together, usually in a straight line. There may also be wrinkles in the center of the forehead just between the eyebrows—but not across. Their eyes may have the upper white showing, but not the lower white. 
  • Disgust: The eyes may be narrow, and the nose may be slightly wrinkled. Look out for a quick flash of the upper teeth, too. 
  • Anger: The eyebrows are lowered and drawn together, with vertical lines between them. The lips may also become tense, with corners down, or in a square shape.
  • Happiness: It's easy to spot a fake smile if you know the trick. Look for crow's feet near the outside of the eyes. If they're not there and the lips are in a smile, chances are the person isn't conveying genuine happiness. 
  • Sadness: Sadness can be difficult to detect. Look to see if the inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn in and then up, and if the corners of the lips are drawn down. The lower lip may also very slightly pout out. 
  • Contempt: if you someone dislikes you, one side of their mouth may slightly raise, looking somewhat like a smirk.

If you're tuned into micro-expressions, you may be able to spot them in the workplace, however, micro-expressions only last a split second, so you'll need to be quick.

Watch (But Don't Rely on) Body Language

Our bodies can start communicating before we even speak, and you've probably heard about common clues. For example, you may have read that crossing your arms can mean you're defensive, or that checking your watch may indicate that you're distracted. While both might be true, making assumptions can be dangerous, Reddington said.

"Many of the behavioral 'tells' that we have been told throughout our lives run the gamut from being sometimes contextually true to rarely ever true," he said. "Crossing the arms, for example. You might think, 'Oh, they're defensive.' Well, not necessarily. They might be thinking hard. They might have a sore back. The room might be cold. There are different reasons why they might be crossing their arms."

When you see those signals, Reddington said to look for context. For example, is the room cold? Do they appear to be physically uncomfortable? Or does their face indicate that they're in deep thought? "Those extra awareness pieces are all very important," he noted.

Body language clues may be even harder to pick up over Zoom, DeYoung said. "We're all talking heads" on Zoom, he said. "If they have their cameras on, you can see their face and read the tone, but most people can appear stiff on camera."

"We are emotional creatures," DeYoung said. "Trust your own gut and instincts. If you feel like something's not right, you're probably right."

The best thing to do is to confirm your suspicions with a conversation and never an e-mail, DeYoung recommended. "I see so many people get in trouble misinterpreting words and language, because what's missing in an e-mail is the emotional component," he said. "The best thing to do is to say, 'Hey, it seems like things are not right. Can you tell me what's going on?' "

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.


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