Although there are many ways that you can appear as an unapproachable leader, there are five signals that you may be sending without realizing it. Signals that broadcast to others that you are unapproachable, even if you don’t intend to be.
1. Your pace is fast: Because you have a lot on your plate and are juggling lots of demands, like many leaders, you may have developed a fast pace. Are you walking briskly to your office to start your day? At either in-person or video conference meetings, are you the last to enter the physical or virtual room and the first one to leave? Your pace may be efficient, but it sends a signal to others that you are in a hurry. My leadership mentor, John Maxwell, advises leaders to “walk slowly through the crowd.” You will be surprised at how simply slowing down your pace will make you appear more approachable.
2. You expect others to approach you: I have coached many leaders who want to improve communication with their teams, and when I ask them about how often they are engaging with their teams beyond staff meetings, they say, “my door is always open if they want to talk,” or “I am always available if they have questions or need my help.” Is this type of availability really helpful? As a leader, you are passively displaying your approachability. Some people will approach you; however, for every person who does, there are multiple others who will not initiate. Commonly, team members who have a more reserved communication and behavioral style may hesitate initiating contact because they fear they may be “bothering” or “interrupting” you. When you take the initiative to approach others, they will likely feel more at ease approaching you when they need to do so.
3. Lack of eye contact: Are you making little eye contact because you are distracted? Maybe you are deep in thought, or perhaps you are distracted by your phone or your computer. When you make eye contact with others, it is a sign that you want to connect with them. Without eye contact, they will assume you are busy or don’t want to connect.
4. Your serious facial expression: When you are concentrating on something or thinking about everything you have to do, have you been told that you look irritated? It may be your “thinking face”, but what does it look like to others? Just as your quick pace relays you are too busy to engage with others, a thinking face conveys either that you are deep in thought or you don’t want to be approached. Here a video about how your facial expression may prevent you from connecting with others:
5. Your conversations are only about tasks: Some leaders are more task-oriented than people-oriented. If you are more of a task-oriented person like I am, your idea of a successful day is the number of tasks that were completed rather than the conversations with people that were non-task related. Remember that your team members are human beings rather than human doings. The way they perform at work is only a fraction of who they are as a person. They have an entire life outside of work, and although they may not feel comfortable sharing personal information with you, if you share some personal information about yourself, it reminds them that you are human and want to connect with them.
In addition to sending signals that you are unapproachable, as a leader you may unknowingly intimidate others. Here is a video about four surprising ways you may be intimidating to others: