Being approachable is a professional skill that fosters numerous career benefits, from networking and career advancement to information access and other advantages. As a leader at any level, approachability matters even more.
“If your direct reports, superiors, and colleagues don’t want to approach you, you’re likely to miss out on access to timely information, lose personal and professional credibility (not to mention likeability), and ultimately be seen as the kind of professional people don’t want to be like,” communications skills expert Deborah Grayson Riegel writes in her blog. “You do need to make yourself the kind of professional who is seen as inviting and inclusive of other people and their ideas.”
As John Hall, an Inc. columnist and leadership solution provider, notes, “Whether you’re a startup or Fortune 500 executive, you can’t be an effective leader if people are hesitant to approach you. Sure, a stoic hard-ass personality exudes authority, but this shield will only push people away — which isn’t leading at all.”
Effective leaders draw people to them rather than ruling with an iron fist. The latter may be respected, but it’s difficult for employees to make a deep connection with someone who manages through pressure or intimidation. Great managers — and managers who effectively retain talent — build lasting connections and create relationships in which employees deliver, even in challenging circumstances.
“Approachable people have an information advantage over those who are more difficult to talk to,” Robin Camarote, Founder of Work Life Lab, writes in her blog. “If you’re a skilled conversationalist and able to keep up a good rapport with people, you’ll get the scoop earlier than those not as skilled. Not being approachable could be your biggest leadership blind spot.”
By its very nature, leadership status puts a wall between you and your employees. Great managers take steps to connect in appropriate ways.
“Your status as a leader inevitably creates a barrier with new employees or unfamiliar faces, and a harsh personality or a lack of time only fortifies it,” writes Hall in Inc.’s “5 Surefire Ways to Become a More Approachable Leader.” “Put yourself in employees’ shoes, and take small steps to open the lines of communication. Then, you can break down those walls and capitalize on the knowledge of your entire organization.”
Approachability increases exponentially in value as you climb the ladder into leadership positions.
“Employees will trust you more, and interviewees will be more likely to open up to you,” writes Camarote. “When you put people at ease, you enable them to think and do their best in your presence. You’ll have a stronger network and more loyalty from your team.”
There are many ways to open the lines of communication:
- Basic Communication: Just greeting everyone conveys that people matter to you. Making eye contact, using people’s names, and giving them your undivided attention all help create a bond, according to Joel Garfinkle, an executive coach. “Show you care,” he adds. “Ask how about their tasks, about barriers they’ve encountered, about troubling factors and distractions from outside work.”
- Share Your Failures: Admitting failures may be embarrassing, but admitting to your own enables team members to talk about theirs, says Hall. “Putting pride aside and realizing it’s okay to admit your failures will only strengthen communication within your company.”
- Ask for Help: “Some think that taking the lead means never requiring assistance,” says Garfinkle, “but asking for help provides opportunity for others to shine in addition to making sure you get the best solution and the right person doing the job.“
- Physical Communication: “Non-verbal communications are all of the things you’re saying with your body and posture without speaking,” says Camarote. “It’s your relaxed position in your chair, your smile, your nods, and eye contact. Make sure that these are positive and encourage the person to speak with you.”
- Be Optimistic: “Great leaders can acknowledge that there are troubles, says Garfinkle, “while expressing confidence in the team to make the most of it and get things done. Acknowledge issues, but commit to helping find solutions; people are most likely to resonate with a leader who feels at their level but with the power to make their jobs easier and more successful.”
- Get Feedback: on the unintended impact you have on others. “There is often a gap between what you’re trying to say or achieve and how others experience what you’re saying or doing,” says Riegel. “Ask a few people you trust to give you honest feedback and share how they experience you — especially under stress. One example she offers is saying, “I need a few uninterrupted hours to wrap this project up. I am going to close my door until 3 p.m. so that I can focus, and then I’ll be available.” This way, you’ll be viewed as assertive and considerate, rather than unapproachable.
- Be a Sounding Board: Approachable leaders understand that people will come to them with good and bad news. “Show compassion and empathy; let people know they can always come to you,” says Lolly Daskal, an executive leadership coach. “As a leader, you don’t only lead — you must also stay open and listen. You must embrace compassion and engage empathy. Making yourself approachable and accessible is the secret ingredient to great leadership.”
- Stay Curious: Approachable leaders stay open and ask lots of questions. Stay curious and interested — there is always room to learn something new.
- Address Unapproachable Behaviors: in your team; make sure that everyone is seen as easy to do business with, says Riegel.
- Earn Total Trust: Approachable leaders possess a lot of information, adds Daskal. “Be intelligent and ethical in your use of this information, and give your people reason to trust you.”
“Once you establish those initial touchpoints, people feel more comfortable coming to you when there’s a serious problem,” concludes Camarote, “and showing your appreciation provides an extra motivation boost.”