As a leader, likely your goal is to capably lead your team, and for them – and you – to be assets to the organization you represent. You would like your employees to respect you, and you know that is something that needs to be earned.
Often, misunderstandings, communication barriers, and lack of self-worth and motivation in employees can derail a productive and positive working environment. Therefore, employees need to know they are valuable to the company they work for.
They need a positive mentor in their supervisor who will encourage and motivate them. They need to know that they can approach their manager with innovative ideas, as well as the challenges they are facing. And they need to feel secure in the work environment.
Leaders, in turn, must enjoy working with people. They need to recognize that their role involves more than disseminating instructions; it also includes being a good role model. Their mentorship capabilities should shape the future of the employees on their team, encouraging them to be better and reach for their potential.
And yet, despite what you, as a leader, strive for, and what employees seek in you, the number one complaint of what keeps employee morale low is that leadership is “out of touch.”
How do you know if you, as a leader, are approachable?
Ask yourself these 5 questions:
1. Does everyone on my team feel comfortable expressing ideas and concerns?
2. Does the work environment reflect tension, or is it relaxed and somewhat enjoyable?
3. Does my team seem to get along and work well together, or do they tend to do their own tasks without asking for help or input?
4. When employees approach me individually, do they seem rigid or fearful?
5. When events, challenges, projects, etc., happen around me, do I learn about them before they take place, or after they’ve occurred?
The above questions are for self-reflection. If you want to know the answers, you need to step back and honestly examine how your team perceives you. If you and your team collaborate well together, you’re probably on the right track. But if the work environment is tense, if you have high employee turnover, and if you are usually unaware of what your team is doing, then you have a few things to work on.
Case in point: I once worked under a manager who was feared by everyone on her team. When she arrived at work, speeding through the parking lot, the office grew uncomfortably quiet. The door would fling open, and she’d charge through to her office without making eye contact with anyone. She’d step out within a few minutes, utter the goals she “expected” us to meet that day, then turn on her heel and retreat to her office. Her expression exuded anger and unhappiness. When she spoke, she was loud, curt, and downright mean. Needless to say, only the poor employee with the short straw would approach her when needed, which we tried to limit. And I’ll admit, due to her harsh, brusque comments, it wasn’t unusual for someone to be in tears by the end of the day. (*See related retrospective at the end of this article.)
Here are 6 areas to consider if you want to improve
1. Body language, facial expressions
What impression of ourselves are we giving our employees?
Your hair – how well or how badly it’s groomed; your mouth – if your lips are pursed or you are biting your lip; the facial muscles in your forehead and eyebrows; the direction your eyes are pointed; if your chin sticks out; if your feet and legs are tapping (sitting) or shifting (standing); fidgety hands; tightly crossed arms; the way you walk; the way you hold your head – all are areas of body language that tell those around us whether we are stressed, open to discussion, confident, alert to our surroundings, or aloof.* For more information, see the article: The Ultimate Guide to Body Language, by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., in Psychology Today
If you look and act stressed, or even angry, it’s doubtful anyone will approach you, unless he/she ended up with the short end of the straw. Is that how you want to be viewed?
Hint: Try to record yourself (or have someone record you) when you converse with someone (with the other party’s consent, of course!). Then review the video with scrutiny. Observe how you stand (or sit), your facial expressions, your arms, and even how you walk. Make adjustments where needed and be aware of your negative habits as you move forward. You might also consider asking a close friend for honest feedback, or hire a consultant for that purpose.
Listening is one important key to being approachable. People need to know that the person they are speaking with is not only hearing them, but is attune to that particular conversation.
Another sign of a considerate listener is implementation. Following through with the conversation by taking action will show the person you heard him/her and you want to do something about the situation.
Avoid interrupting the speaker or cutting him/her off prematurely. This abruptness indicates a lack of empathy and is a clear sign of disinterest. It can also be interpreted as condescending.
Hints: Good eye contact, transferring incoming calls momentarily, ignoring email and text message alerts, asking questions for further understanding (see next point), and acknowledging the employee’s concerns or ideas will all give evidence that you are listening. Even an occasional nod of the head and your facial expressions will exhibit your attentiveness. The follow-through on their concerns and/or ideas will solidify that and encourage your employees to trust you.
3. Ask questions, repeat
Ask questions to make certain you are clear on the situation. Asking questions allows you to gather additional information and have a broader view of the story. You also want to make sure you and the individual understand the discussion in the same way. Our upbringing, background, and culture might mean we translate ideas differently than someone else, so don’t be afraid to ask questions for better clarity.
As you participate in the discussion, repeat certain phrases or requests for further clarification. Repeating elements also shows the speaker you are listening and trying to understand the situation.
4. Voice tone
Just as body language interprets our thinking, the tone of our voice can equally put us in either a positive or precarious position.
Sighing, volume, modulation, how fast or slow we speak – these all tell your audience your mood. If you sound angry, you will lose valuable information because speakers will be afraid to say anything further. Or they might reply in kind. In other words, your tone of voice will steer the conversation. The speaker likely will adjust his/her tone according to yours.
If you know you are having a bad day, this will be reflected in your tone. So if you need another day or time to avoid giving the wrong impression, be honest with your speaker and schedule another opportunity.
Case in point: On a personal level, when I am focused, I am well aware that my tone can make me sound forceful, and facial expressions can cause me to look serious. Because of this awareness, I must actively remind myself to smile and be alert to what my face and tone are implying, and then I make the needed adjustments. Having empathy for the person I’m conversing with is another way to help me adjust my expression and tone. (See next point.)
5. Empathy and understanding
As mentioned above, because of a variety of backgrounds, cultural differences, and even life changes, we need to make an effort to understand the person we’re conversing with to be clear on whatever issue is being discussed. Know how he/she is approaching it to know where you need to steer the discussion.
I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary to hold someone’s hand, but rather to understand the “why” with regard to what is being discussed. Maybe the speaker is going through a hardship and emotions are interfering; or perhaps because of cultural differences, what the speaker perceives is different from what you want him/her to understand.
Be patient, be understanding, ask questions, keep emotions under control. Table the discussion for another time if it would be more conducive for a better outcome.
Finally, lack of availability is often a deterrent for discussion. As a manager, you have many hats to wear and a lot of tasks to undertake. You might reason that if you made time for everyone, it’s likely you wouldn’t get much done.
But in order to have a stable team, your most important role as a manager is to be available for your employees and be the role model they need. If you are not physically present for them ever – or you are present, but on a limited basis – your team will eventually fall apart. All of us need leadership and an organized chain of command in some form for this very reason.
Make time for your employees. Have an open-door policy so they can approach you when needed. Your availability acts as a security for your team because they know you are there. If you are infrequent, they will not have opportunities to build rapport or trust with you.
Avoid the mindset that you are a rule giver and task maker; instead be a mentor to your team and individuals. Show them you are a team player.
When there are times you simply are not going to be available, make that clear to your team so they can respect that. However, avoid making that a habit.
Your ultimate goal
Your goal, ultimately, is to be approachable and respected.
It takes a strong, stable person to step back and analyze how he/she is perceived by others. If you desire to move your organization forward, then you have to be an approachable leader. You have to be a team player and work well with your people.
Be alert to the above points and where you need to make adjustments. Start with one, and build from there. Be patient with yourself in your improvement, and accept that improvement never ends.
*With a deeper understanding of people, especially ones in leadership positions, my response to scenarios such as this one is more finely tuned. As a consultant who assists companies with manager/employee communications and relationships, I try to help people relate to one another and dig deep for enhanced understanding. In addition, as a consultant I have more leeway to ask certain questions and offer suggestions than I would as an employee, such as I was in this case as a subordinate.
In the given scenario, it is clear this manager had deeper issues that affected her behavior toward her employees. If her issues had been addressed and she had been willing to embrace positive behavioral changes, it’s possible she could have eventually been a respected manager.
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