When it comes to being a great leader, you’ve likely heard the basic tenets: listen, communicate, motivate. But there’s a precursor to all of those elements that many people overlook—putting people at ease so they can interact with you effectively.
"It's the entry point. If you don't have that right, you don't really get to get past go," says Phil Wilson of the Labor Relations Institute, and author of The Approachability Playbook: 3 Essential Habits for Thriving Leaders and Teams.
While some people are comfortable around others in more powerful positions, many are not, Wilson says. That "power distance" can have a negative impact on everything from communication to morale, making the ability to put people at ease very important. In other cases, people are just generally shy or intimidated.
Whatever the reason employees and colleagues find as barriers to approachability, overall it’s an obstacle to creating a better, more productive environment, he says. To lower or eliminate those barriers, try one (or all) of these eight strategies.
When you sense that someone is trying to approach you, direct your attention to them to let them know you’re interested, says Jim Bolton, who heads communications and organizational performance consultancy Ridge Training. Close your laptop screen or put down your phone to signal that the individual is more important than other distractions, he says. Body language, such as turning toward the person, can also signal that their presence and words matter to you.
Your personality can influence your leadership style. If you expect everyone to adapt to your style, you’re going to make some people uncomfortable, says communication consultant Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Networking Skills—and Leave a Positive Impression.
For example, if you’re a fast-paced extrovert and expect someone who works more slowly or is more introverted to keep up with you, you may make them uncomfortable. If you’re very detail-oriented and you’re working with someone who needs "just the facts," you might want to pare down your response to a few data points. As you get to know your team better, you can adapt your style to maintain the best relationship and interaction.
If you sense that the person is nervous or hesitant, use empathy to defuse the tension. Saying something like, "It’s always tough to come to the boss with a problem, isn’t it?" can let the employee know that you understand their feelings and that you’ve been in similar situations.
Alternatively, humor can also lighten the mood. If an employee is hesitant to enter your office, you might joke about how it’s safe to cross the threshold, for example. Either way, you’re calling out the obvious tension in a non-threatening way and signaling that you’re open to the conversation, Bolton says.
It’s a simple technique, but integrating someone’s name into a conversation lets them know that you’re aware of who they are, Fine says. If you’re bad with names, work on some simple techniques to get better, use a cheat sheet to review before you go into a meeting. If that’s not possible or if you’ve simply forgotten, excuse yourself and ask for the name again.
"Say to them, ‘There are so many people at this event, and I'm terrible with names. Would you remind me of yours, please?’" she suggests. Then use their name in the conversation. If you don’t, they'll know it, and you'll burn a bridge, she says.
"How’s it going?" has become a casual way of saying "hello." But for leaders, it’s the most important coaching question you can ask, Bolton says. If you ask it and don’t really listen for clues in the answer, you’re missing out on an important opportunity to put those around you at ease.
"Sometimes, we ask that question and we don’t really listen to the answer," Bolton says. If you hear something in someone’s voice that indicates there’s something wrong, ask a follow-up question to let people know you care, he says. Sometimes, you’ll give people the opportunity to share something that has been on their mind or get an important piece of feedback, Bolton says.
Asking good questions can help strengthen relationships. Instead of the same old conversational questions, try a "digging-deeper" question, Fine says. For example, asking how someone's summer went is broad and leads to superficial answers. Instead, try or follow up with a digging-deeper question that lets the other person know you are truly interested. Those may include asking what the employee did with their family over the summer or if they did anything interesting over the summer. Being slightly more specific opens the door and gives a framework within which the employee can respond comfortably, she says.
However, there’s a caveat here: Don’t ask a digging-deeper question if you don’t have time for the answer, Fine warns. The only thing worse than being superficial is to ask a question then have to move on before you’ve heard the answer.
Fine also suggests disclosing something about yourself that can create a point of connection. Don’t make it too personal, but disclosing that you, too, have a child who plays soccer, or that you have an interest in a particular book can give the other person a conversational lifeline—something about which to ask questions or continue the discussion.
"You disclosed something that you're willing to talk about and you're giving someone some detail to talk about with you," she says. It also displays a measure of trust in that you care about the person enough to share something personal.
It’s easy to cross the line from casual conversation and interest to sounding like a reporter, peppering the individual with questions. That’s counterproductive, Fine says. Don’t jump around from topic to topic or fire off too many questions in a row. If you leave your employee or colleague feeling like they’re in a deposition, you’ve done the opposite of what you’ve intended.
Making people feel at ease boils down to a combination of intention, curiosity, and empathy. Take a healthy interest in creating connections with your team on an everyday basis, Bolton says, and they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you when the stakes are higher.