When I interview the stakeholders on the strengths and gaps of the leaders I work with, it’s not unusual for me to hear that the peers and direct reports may see that leader as “aloof” or unapproachable. The fact that they may be in senior management can compound the issue, as there is always that hierarchical block that may keep employees away.
Some reasons why a leader may appear to be unapproachable:
Discomfort: It’s not unusual for leaders to be uncomfortable and even awkward around others. They may naturally be an introvert, or they may not have learned the social skills needed to interact in a way that pulls others toward them.
Driven: Many good leaders are so naturally focused on the work of getting things done (which is often why they have been promoted) that they haven’t recognized approachability as a leverage point for great leadership.
Self-contained: Some very good leaders are just plain hard to get to know. They don’t talk about themselves or reveal their vulnerabilities, making them appear less than human while unknowingly giving off an air of detachment.
Unapproachability can be a blind spot for some very good leaders. In other words, they are surprised (and dismayed) to hear that others see them as unsociable, standoffish, or distant. It’s rarely intentional, even if the office gossip might make one believe their behavior is “on purpose.” Without a change in an unapproachable leader’s behavior, this can stall or stop a career.
Employees need to be able to interact with the leader if the work is to get done. In the end, work is a relationship that requires collaboration. Without healthy relationships in the workplace, all kinds of dysfunction can occur.
If you are one of those leaders who has had feedback indicating that others see you as aloof, distant, or unapproachable, it’s important to use interpersonal skills that might make you uncomfortable, up to and including conversations that might make you uncomfortable.
Consider starting the following:
Initiate conversations: Get out of your comfort zone and begin some conversations. It is essential for you to approach others first in order to begin to be seen as approachable. Remember to be sincere, smile, make eye contact, be relaxed, and start with a question. Something mildly personal is not a bad way to start — “How was your weekend?” or “What hobbies do you enjoy?”
Listen: You might think everyone would know that when they ask a question, they need to listen to the answer. Not always, particularly when a leader is in a position of authority or nervous. They may talk over someone and respond by giving their opinion, judgment or personal experience. When you listen, do so by turning off the chatter in your brain (as well as your mouth). Try to find: a.) a follow-on question about their interests, or b.) common ground to further the conversation.
Reveal some things about yourself: It’s perfectly OK to reveal your own interests outside of work, or what you did on your vacation. But be brief, don’t dominate the conversation, and remember to keep listening to out more about the person you’re speaking to. These steps will help develop the relationship so they will approach you in the future.
Remember: Try to remember things about the other person that you can start a conversation with. They’ll be grateful that you remembered. Take notes after your conversation, if needed, about their interests so you can have a conversation-starter.
Showing empathy: People want to be heard, and active listening is one of the best ways to show empathy to others. When I think back over my career, the leaders and bosses who I felt really heard me are the ones that I worked hardest for. Beyond listening, when someone is troubled about work or something personal, try to put yourself in their shoes to understand their side of things and follow up later to inquire about their concerns.
Be every bit as diligent about reaching out to others as you are about getting the work done. They go hand in hand to lead you to success.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.