Have you ever felt ‘caught off guard’ by a customer complaint, internal system failure or a valued staff member’s resignation? Or perhaps the latest engagement survey presented results that just didn’t fit with how you thought things were going? Maybe you have been caught in the common leadership trap of being told what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear.

As we advance in our career it is easy to see how we could fall into a place where we’ve lost touch with the day to day temperature of our organisation. Career advancement more often than not means our responsibilities increase, reporting requirements grow and our roles generally become more complex and varied. The increased demands on our time, coupled with the power-distance created by the authority of our role means it is all too easy to lose touch with our organisation.

There is of course an argument for the usefulness of key performance indicators, however they are just that - indicators. The most effective leaders use them as measures and signals; they know KPIs do not replace the type of relationships required keep on the pulse of your organisation.

The more distance there is in your relationships the more likely your team will tell you what they think you want to hear at the expense of what you need to hear. They may instinctively cover up potential issues, shy away from sharing ideas and stagnate in a ‘this is how its always been done’ paradigm.

How do you close the gap between you and your people? How do you access the tacit knowledge inherit in your teams? How can you build a team that tells you what you need to hear?

Being approachable is key to building relationships with your teams and colleagues. When you are considered friendly and easy to talk-to, your team is more likely to tell you the things you need to know about – even when they are potentially difficult conversations.

4 Tips for becoming more approachable

1. Be Available

It may seem obvious but breaking down barriers to conversation and being visibly available is a key step in building your approachability. Consistently closed office doors, leaving work early every Friday lunch time and requiring an appointment to see you, sends a very clear message – if you don’t have something very important to say, don’t talk to me.

So, open your office door (unless closing it is required for confidentiality), be transparent about your movements and actively seek out casual conversations with your team.  Managing By Wandering Around (MBWA), as promoted in Tom Peters’ book In Search Of Excellence, suggests a powerful way to connect with your team is to get up and wander around. Go out and talk to your people, ask questions and get to know their work, interests and ideas.

2. Get Personal

Humans are social creatures, ‘hard-wired’ to seek out and please likeminded people. Building a sense of rapport between you and your team supports a collaborative team that wants to work with you, not just for you.

Sharing appropriate information about yourself is an important part of connecting with people as it demonstrates empathy, compassion and authenticity. So, make time to chat with colleagues, take a genuine interest in their hobbies and family but don’t forget to share from your life also.

3. Listen & Engage

A quick google of ‘listening’ shows that there are countless listening techniques promoted in business communities; Personally, I believe the most important thing when listening is your intent. If you set out to firstly understand, then be understood, you’re on the right path. So, next time you have a bright idea or think something is going poorly, try asking your team for their thoughts first before proffering your own.

When practised well, listening can shift the dynamic in even the most challenging of situations. Powerful shifts occur primarily because effective listening demonstrates understanding. Understanding builds trust and trust is paramount in building approachability.

4. Take Action

Be ready to take action. I have heard more than once that a leader does not wish to get amongst their people for fear of the additional work it will create. It is an inevitability that if you are more available, more connected and listening better – your people will tell you more of what you need to know. The worst thing you could do would be to take no action on the matters they raise with you.

Research by Anita Tucker and Sara J Singer has shown us that simply being present and approachable isn’t enough to improve performance. The value created when you hear what you need to know, rather than what people think you want to hear, is in the action that follows. The actions do not need to be undertaken by you, but as a leader you must be accountable for their completion.

In summary, being approachable is about being available, genuinely connecting with your people, listening well and taking action. Making small improvements in these areas can make a big improvement to the performance of your team.

“It is so easy to believe someone when they’re telling you exactly what you want to hear.” - Author Unknown


The content of this article is one of the topics covered in RJA Leadership

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