Tea Leaves

Can you read tea leaves?

The art of tea leaf reading dates back to the 17th Century. Tasseography – divining the future from the past (via leaves) – still has followers today even if you don’t practice it. Or believe it.

Before you dismiss the notion of predicting the future via tea leaves, think about a corollary that might have more value for you: the art of picking up on signs and clues in the workplace that things may not be going so well for you. We call this reading the tea leaves too.

Interested now?

Not long ago I asked to be part of a project with one of my work groups. In the end it turns out they didn’t need me (or want me – there’s the tea leaf) so no new assignments came my way. ‘Wow! That’s great Christopher ’cause you’re really busy! Who wants more work?!‘, you might say. Not so fast Dick Tracy – I’ll tell you who wants more work. High performers want more work, more challenges and more responsibility. When the game’s on the line, high performers want the rock. That’s how it goes.

So not picking up new assignments is not necessarily good news. You have to read the tea leaves to see if it means anything. Sometimes, things are just what they appear to be with no deeper meaning, so inferring insight from events takes some practice.

What to look for and consider? Try these:


  • Any significant decrease in comms is just not good. Period
  • Less talk/face time with your boss – also not good
  • Being late to hear the latest state of the business, project plan, focus, etc – uh, no
  • Losing familiarity with the language and internal reference points? You’re out of touch
  • Dropping off con calls and meeting lists? Who needs you


  • Has it been some time since you got a new challenge? Wake up
  • Seeing peers and others take on new projects and learnings while you idle? Not optimum
  • Having the ability to do your work without thinking? So do computers
  • Falling behind the technology curve or social media curve? No good for you


  • Put your money where your mouth is – no or low raises? Not good – even companies in dire sraights always have comp for winners. Always
  • No bonus this year? See last point
  • Are stock options a thing of the past? Don’t hold your breath
  • Reduced vacation, less work from home flexibility, restrictions on business expenses etc., all add up to your company being less sure of your total value

We could go on.

You see, the art of the game – and it is indeed an art and not a linear process – is to read the signs around you to keep some sense of your relative value to your company today. Equity theory still holds; we trade time, labor and brain work for cash, benefits and flexibility. Work is bartering in essence.

The key is to be able to infer meaning – to read the tea leaves – ahead of time to understand when you are beginning to lose that bartering leverage. When that happens you can do only one of two things:

  1. Find new ways to add increased value to your current firm, or,
  2. Find a new firm that more reasonably values what you currently do

I’ve never advised jumping ship too early or chasing career satisfaction: odds are you can be accomplished and happy where you are today. But you’ve got to understand your perceived relative value to make that mental equity calculation in your head.

You’re got to read the tea leaves.


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