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Are You an Approachable Leader?

Building relationships is just as important as getting the work done.

When I interview people on the strengths and gaps of the leaders they work with, it’s not unusual to hear that the peers and direct reports may see a leader as aloof or unapproachable. Just being in senior management can compound the issue, since there is always that hierarchical block that may keep employees away.

Here are some characteristics that may make a leader seem unapproachable:

Discomfort. It’s not unusual for leaders to be uncomfortable and even awkward around others. They may naturally be introverts, 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 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 behavior, this can stall or stop a career.

Employees need to be able to interact with their leader if the work is to get done. 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.

Consider starting the following:

Initiate conversations. Get out of your comfort zone and begin some conversations. Approach others first to be seen as approachable. 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 all people know that when they ask a question, they need to listen to the answer. Not always, particularly when one 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 follow-on question about their interests, or 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 keep listening to find out more about the person you’re speaking to. These steps will help develop the relationship so the colleague 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. Take notes after your conversation, if needed, about their interests.

Show 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.

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 consulting firm.

(Image via Fisher Photostudio/