This post, my boss says I’m an “unapproachable” manager , was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

A reader writes:

I’m a fairly new manager, in this role for a little less than a year. A few months ago, I got some feedback from my boss that I’m being perceived as “unapproachable.”

I’ve been hearing this my whole life, since middle school, although different words have been used (“stuck up,” “quiet,” “aloof”). I’m a neurotypical introvert who opens up quickly with people when I feel comfortable. I have depression and anxiety but am (mostly) high-functioning, so my illnesses aren’t usually perceptible to others and don’t affect my work performance. I struggle to maintain friendships and make new friends, partly because my depression means I have to make a conscious effort to care about and reach out to others.

At work, I’m professional and focused and don’t participate in gossip or long conversations that aren’t work-related. I am very good at my job, aside from this, and consistently receive glowing performance evaluations and raises. Even before this feedback, I was making a conscious, daily effort to initiate small talk with all of my direct reports and peers, but it peters out quickly with people I’m not comfortable with and leads to feelings of shame and self-loathing.

I’m concerned that being perceived as unapproachable hinders my ability to manage effectively, and I’m struggling with how to address this issue. Given how long I’ve been hearing feedback like this about myself, I’m not sure it’s possible to change, and as a result am second-guessing whether management is even the right role for me.

Do you or your readers have any suggestion for how to become more approachable? Should I even be a manager?

I think you can connect with people and build rapport without relying on small talk!

The key is to show interest and care when you’re having work conversations. These are conversations you’re already having, and they’re probably on topics that interest you at least to some degree, so they don’t require you initiating something entirely new and going wildly outside of your comfort zone.

Look at the difference between these two conversations.

Less approachable
Manager: What’s the status of the boysenberry report?
Employee: I’m still waiting on edits from Legal, but once I have those I’ll be nearly done.
Manager: Okay. Make sure you get them by Friday. What about the dragon fruit analysis?
Employee: Coming along great, and I got some really good input from people at yesterday’s meeting.
Manager: Okay, that’s it then.

More approachable
Manager: Hey, thanks for making time to talk on short notice! I just have a couple of quick questions about where we’re at with things. How’s the boysenberry report coming along?
Employee: I’m still waiting on edits from Legal, but once I have those I’ll be nearly done.
Manager: Wow, they’re really stretching this out, huh? Are you feeling okay about the timeline, or is there anything I can do to nudge them along?
Employee: Yeah, they’re taking their time! I think it’s okay though, I planned for a delay there.
Manager: That was smart to do! If you ever do need me to nudge, let me know.
Employee: I will, thanks!
Manager: How are you coming with the dragon fruit analysis?
Employee: Pretty good, I think. I got some really good input from people at yesterday’s meeting.
Manager: I noticed that! I loved Craig’s point about the pulp. By the way, you did a great job at explaining why we’d decided not to focus on papayas.
Employee: Oh, thanks!
Manager: Well, I’m excited to see it when you’re done. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with it. Anything else we should talk about meanwhile?

These are obviously overly simplified conversations (I clearly won’t ever be able to write fiction), but the idea is that you can take a warm, actively interested approach in how people’s work is going. If even some of my conversations with a manager were like the second example, I’d have a hard time finding that person unapproachable.

Also, positive feedback! People generally feel a lot less unapproachable when they’re saying nice things about your work — so make sure you’re giving plentiful positive feedback. You don’t want to BS people, of course, and you shouldn’t be insincere, but if someone is doing a generally good job, there should be a ton of things you can legitimately give positive feedback on — even little things like “great turn of phrase in this paragraph!” or “smart pivot in that meeting.”

Also, empathy! If someone is dealing with something hard or frustrating (an external contact who’s cranky or difficult to reach, an impossible travel schedule, or so forth), just acknowledging that can go a long way — even just “I’m impressed at how patient you’ve been with him” or “tough schedule this month — anything I can do?”

Other stuff: Make sure you’re open to hearing people’s ideas. Be open to conversational tangents — if you’re talking about X and they bring up Y, be curious and see where it goes. (There are limits to this, of course, like if you have a long agenda to get through or are pressed for time.) Ask how you can help. Ask for input (“I’m grappling with X and wondered what your thoughts are”). Recognize people’s strengths (“you’re so great at X — how would you approach it?”)

In so many ways, approachability as a manager is about being kind and open. It doesn’t have to be talking about your weekend or making sparkling small talk. Just show genuine interest in and appreciation for people’s work. (And for what it’s worth, there are a lot of people out there who would appreciate a manager who doesn’t put a big emphasis on small talk, but does clearly care/is supportive about the stuff that counts.)

If you find that doing that is a struggle too, that’s when I’d get more concerned about whether the job is a comfortable fit for where you are right now. But it sounds like so far you’ve been framing rapport as being about how social you are, and it doesn’t need to be!

You may also like:

  • can you be a good manager if you’re shy?
  • what’s the ideal personality type for a manager?
  • giving people a heads-up before a coworker is fired, telling your boss he’s unapproachable, and more

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