Being seen as “warm and fuzzy” is not needed to lead effectively. Yet leaders with higher levels of approachability achieve better outcomes than their pricklier colleagues, because they receive more information.
No matter how well-intentioned they may be, execs that are introverted, intimidating, harsh, or dismissive—or just short on relational graces—make those around them hesitant to come forward. That shuts down information flow, impairing judgment, decision-making, and results. It can also de-motivate even their best people.
Consider the following feedback I’ve received over the years about various leaders with approachability issues:
“He says he has an open-door policy, but he’s harsh, even on a good day. No one wants to give him anything but good news.”
“She’s cold and remote -- not sure what to make of her, and I've known her for years. I just steer clear of her whenever possible.”
“He’s all business. Forget the niceties, if you try and engage him as a person, it’s not going to happen. People do their job, and that’s it. No one’s going above and beyond for him.”
In each case, the leader knew they weren’t exactly “a people person,” but didn’t really worry about it, because “work is work” / “business is business” / or “I’m not here to win any popularity contests.”
Whether nuance, bad news, or a seemingly insignificant piece of information that might solve a leader’s important problem or puzzle, people will hold back unless absolutely necessary, often too late to be actionable. The cost can be high, and is certainly avoidable.
Check yourself. If you are frustrated with not getting important information on a timely basis from your people, it helps to suspect your own level of approachability, even if all you do is rule it out. As this may be in your blind spot, ask those around you whom you trust if they think you might put people off more than you know. Give them extra permission to be frank with you about it.
If you discover you may have an approachability issue, here are a few suggestions to try out:
1. When you get ideas and suggestions, or simply are given information by your people, acknowledge it. Ten words or less can let your people know you welcome what they are giving you. Failure to say, “I appreciate the heads up,” or, “Thank you, I got that update,” telegraphs apathy, adding to shut down.
2. When you decide to ignore input or recommendations, why not take a moment to explain? Absent that, people will read their own story into your silence, which may be, s/he doesn’t want my input, so I’m not going to provide it.
3. Over time, go a level deeper on getting to know your people by investing one on one time with them.
4. Let them know you better by sharing a bit more of yourself, and initiating discussions that go beyond specific tasks and deliverables.
5. Make sure you are asking questions about the other person—both work-related and on a human level.
6. Don’t hesitate to show caring and concern about others when it’s heartfelt.
7. Listen hard. Watch distractions, like doing other things while people are talking to you.
8. Consider making extra effort to be gentle with people who are easily intimidated, or less prone to go “toe to toe."
Approachability and high standards of professionalism are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, complementary. Pricklier leaders need to put in a bit more effort to ensure they are open to their people’s ideas. Doing so can make the difference between enduring and achieving.