Leadership Advice

Managers: What’s the secret to being ‘approachable’?

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

As a manager, it’s good to be known as smart and results-oriented; to have people respect your knowledge and track record. But accomplished leaders can be intimidating to others – and not even know it. They find out when their company does a culture survey, 360 feedback, or from someone on their team who just takes the risk of telling them.

Being approachable pays dividends. Your demeanor is contagious – if you’re welcoming, you set the tone for your team. You put people at ease, reducing stress (yes, talking to bosses can be stressful) and encouraging them to share ideas and issues.

How do you make sure you’re as approachable as you’d like to be? Check the signals you send to your staff. 

Here are a few questions:

  • Think about your in-office, in-person interactions with staff. What’s your first reaction to people you encounter? Do you initiate conversations? If someone “pops in” to see you, how do you greet them? Is it “What?” or “Hi, What’s up?” What’s your tone like? Is it warm or cold, terse or welcoming?
  • If you’re working remotely, how much routine contact do you have with your team members? Must they wait for regularly scheduled team meetings to connect with you?  
  • Do you leave space in your schedule for staffers, just to check in? Do you initiate the meetings? Have you encouraged employees to schedule time with you? And do you routinely keep those appointments? Are you on time for meetings with your team or do you keep them waiting?
  • Do you let people know the threshold for urgent/important interruptions? Do you say, “Never hesitate to ping me for … (breaking news, ethics issues, employee health, safety – or wonderful news like engagements or childbirths or awards)?
  • Does your personality differ by daypart? Maybe you’re not a morning person – or foggy/groggy/grouchy without your coffee. Maybe you’re often drained in the late afternoon after a day trapped in Zoom rooms. Let people know that. While you try to rise above those challenges, you’re human. Explain the situations that challenge your capacity to be fully present – so staffers don’t misread the situation and assume you’re unhappy with or uninterested in them.
  • Are you appreciative? If you show genuine gratitude to people – telling them specifically what they’ve done to earn your thanks – you reinforce the work and strengthen your connections.
  • How’s your sense of humor? You don’t have to be the person who creates the levity, but do you enable an atmosphere where laughter and fun are a workplace way of life? Extra points if you’re a good sport about being the butt of some jokes. Clearly, people don’t tease a leader who’s not approachable.

Please note that being approachable doesn’t mean you are “always on” and never out of reach. It doesn’t mean you give up control of your time and schedule. It means scheduling carefully and welcoming warmly.

Once you’re known as an approachable leader, your boundaries aren’t barriers. Your skills and accomplishments will still be intimidating – but to your competitors, not to your team.

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