Imagine this scenario: As a senior leader, you find yourself spending most of your time in your office, going from one meeting to the next and trying to keep up with your to-do list. It’s not that you are intentionally avoiding talking with employees, but it just doesn’t come naturally to you. You get it — being available for employees helps build relationships and trust, but there’s just not enough time in the day. You are busy, demands pull you in many directions, and there are too many people to meet with in a single day. Being overly friendly results in perceptions of favoritism. Plus, you are a private person, so you aren’t overly excited about small talk or sharing the details of your life. Sound familiar for yourself or someone you know?
While being accessible and approachable is a common leadership challenge, it is easier than you think. It doesn’t require revealing overly personal information and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Effective leaders prioritize being accessible because it is imperative for building trust and can be a key driver of employee engagement. Accessible managers are critical to an employee’s work experience, but also seeing senior leaders as accessible creates confidence in the future success of the organization. If you aren’t finding ways to connect with your workforce, you may be seriously hindering their commitment to the organization. Sounds like it’s time to learn how to be accessible.
Where to Start? Understand Why Are You Resistant
One suggestion for becoming more “accessible” is to reflect on any resistance you may have to being so. Two of the most common reasons we hear are described below:
Many leaders are results-oriented. Many leaders are naturally more results-oriented (focused on the “doing” and achieving results) as compared to relationship-oriented (focused on interpersonal interactions). This results-orientation can cause leaders to overlook the importance of people-focused competencies like listening, communication, coaching, or modeling values. High performers typically advance in organizations because of their strong technical and execution skills, but these skills become less and less important as people take on more leadership responsibility. It is difficult to shift from task-focused behaviors that have been positively reinforced to other skills like valuing people, encouraging risk taking, or demonstrating respect — all of which make you a more accessible leader.
If you’re introverted, you may have a harder time talking about yourself. If you are introverted, it may be difficult to strike up conversations with people, feel comfortable sharing personal information with those you don’t know well, or meet new people. Extroverts may be more likely to emerge as leaders (Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002), but plenty of research that shows introverts can make highly effective leaders and are well-equipped to be accessible to their teams (Kahnweiler, 2009). It is a misconception that being accessible requires more talking on your part; it actually requires more listening, something that introverts may find easier than their extroverted counterparts.
How to be More Accessible
Now that you’ve thought about why you may be resistant to making yourself more accessible, here are a few simple tips geared to help make social interactions easier:
Look for Opportunities to Ask Questions. Find brief opportunities to interact with your employees. This may be during elevator rides, walks down the hall in-between meetings, or intentional breaks where you visit particular groups. Carve out time to run into people or take five minutes and give one of your employees a call. Rather than doing all the talking, ask people questions. Spark conversation by asking how work is going, what’s top-of-mind, or what’s new and exciting outside of work.
I was recently reading Fredrik Backman’s New York Times bestseller, “A Man Called Ove,” where he describes the uncomfortable situation of a man about to meet his future father-in-law. As I read the scene, it reminded me that connecting with others is actually pretty easy. It’s really about inviting others to share something about themselves: “He cleared his throat and looked around with a certain desperation to find something to ask this old man about. Because this was what Ove had learned: if one didn’t have anything to say, one had to find something to ask. If there was one thing that made people forget to dislike one, it was when they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.”
The lesson from Ove? Invite others to share with you. Get to know a thing or two about the people who work for you. This is how you become accessible.
Address people by name and remember things about them. Whenever possible, remember and use people’s names. If a name escapes you, kindly ask for a reminder. This shows a clear value for someone as a person, not just as one cog in the inner workings of your company. Additionally, as you get the opportunity to meet people and ask them questions, remember some of the details people share. These can be great conversation-starters next time.
One CEO we worked with who led a hospital with 3,000 employees took time to round every single day for the last 25 years. He made it a point to know one thing about each employee. Sue tries to drink a gallon of water every day. Bill just had his first grandbaby. Mary hates spicy food. Working these facts into hallway greetings made employees feel connected and special.
Find one topic of conversation that feels safe to share about yourself. When you ask questions, it’s natural for people to ask something in return. Do not panic. Come up with at least one topic that you feel comfortable discussing with others. Maybe you have a passion for horseback riding. Maybe you have a hilarious two-year-old (children are great for endless stories!). Maybe you have a new interest in gardening and cooking. There is at least one topic, something that does not feel overly sensitive or personal, that you can talk about. It is easy to forget that people are likely intimidated by you or nervous for the opportunity to talk with a senior leader. When people see you as a normal, every-day human just like them, it is easier to make a connection.
Warning: Be Authentic
People aren’t stupid; phony attempts to appear “approachable” may hurt you more than doing nothing at all. You do not have to befriend all people, but your efforts to connect with others need to be sincere. Listen to what people say, be present in the moment while talking with them, and be honest.
As a leader, it is your job to influence people towards accomplishing the goals of the organization. You will be more effective as an influencer when you are familiar, draw similarities between yourself and others, have positive interactions with others, and are likeable, i.e., are accessible (Cialdini, 2009). Being accessible builds trust, and trust strengthens your influence. It sounds like it’s about time to prioritize being an accessible leader.
What tips or tricks do you use to be more accessible?
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Pearson Education, Inc.
Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: a qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of applied psychology, 87(4), 765.
Kahnweiler, K. B. (2009). Why introverts can make the best leaders. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/2009/11/30/introverts-good-leaders-leadership-managing-personality.html