my boss says I’m an “unapproachable” 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!

{ 323 comments… read them below }

  1. MusicWithRocksIn*

    You could use the trick of dentists and doctors everywhere and make yourself a few notes after you talk to someone, then when you know you will see them later, review your notes and ask them about things you learned about them last time. If someone says they are going to a concert after work, ask them how the concert went the next time you see them. Write down their kids names and ask about them. Show them that you think of them as a person and not just an employee (even if you aren’t actually remembering and are just making notes, they don’t know that).

    1. June*

      Do doctors and dentists do this??????!!!! I wish my dr did so I didn’t have to talk about reading every time I see her.

      1. Librar**

        Hairstylists too! I once accidentally saw the notes in my client profile at a former salon. It was not flattering. But I’m sure most of them are benign, I just caught an unfortunate case (one of many reasons why they are *former*).

      2. Van Wilder*

        OMG. My gynecologist clearly wrote down in her notes one time that I lived in Hoboken. I only lived there for a year but every pap smear from the next ten years was, “so, you still living in Hoboken?” But, my clarifying that I don’t live in Hoboken anymore helped distract me from the pelvic exam, so I guess the notes did their job.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I just have to chime in here and say that small talk during pap smears is the weeeeeirdest thing.

          1. SheLooksFamiliar*

            Eh, I don’t find it creepy. My OB/GYN once said, ‘No one enjoys this part of the exam, and they’re not supposed to.’ Some distracting chitchat is probably helpful for both doctor and patient. Also, pap smears used to be painful for me, and I focused on the small talk instead of tensing up.

            1. Slow Gin Lizz*

              I didn’t say creepy, I said weird. :-) I’m all for it, I should mention, I just think it’s always weird no matter the topic. But it’s obviously weird because of the situation, not because of the topic of discussion.

              1. SheLooksFamiliar*

                Got it, thanks! I don’t find it weird, either. I agree with the poster below who said it’s even more awkward to lie in silence.

                FWIW, some male friends have told me they deal with the same thing during their guy-specific exams.

                1. Slow Gin Lizz*

                  And of course there’s always the danger that you might get weird associations between the topic you discuss during these exams and the actual exam itself. So for instance, does Van Wilder get weird feelings now whenever someone brings up Hoboken? :-)

                  Sorry to digress, Alison, I’m just amused by this thread. More so than I should be, probably.

            2. EC*

              I don’t like the chatting during pap smears because it takes away from efficiency. The goal should be doing the exams as quickly as humanly possible, and anything that makes the exams longer needs to be gone. Time spent yammering is time not spent getting on with it.

              1. MMD*

                Have you ever performed one lol? I can chat and do the procedure without wasting time and it calms most patients down. I’m fine if anyone says they’d rather just be quiet.

              2. The vault*

                I don’t think they are stopping the exam to chat. They are doing it while they chat. And they aren’t doing it for their entertainment or really care to tell you anything, they are trying to make you feel more comfortable. If an experienced doctor cant do these and chat at the same time….that would be concerning.

              3. Finland*

                The goal is NOT to do it as quickly as possible. You wouldn’t even allow your mechanic to have that goal. A Pap smear can be extremely painful for some women. A good doctor needs to be thorough, yet gentle, and knows that pain is traumatizing to patients. Efficient does not always mean quick.

          2. All the words*

            Pap smears always seem a little awkward to me so I chatter to ease my tension. Laying there silently seems even MORE awkward.

            I support my sisters in doing whatever they need to do to make it a comfortable visit.

            1. Betteauroan*

              I am an introvert as well. It is difficult to start conversations with people I don’t know very well, but being married to an extrovert has changed me for the better. I started doing what he does. Show interest in other people and ask questions. Let the other person guide the conversation and it will start to get easier. Give compliments when your employees do something good or above and beyond. Engage in some light small talk in the morning when everyone’s getting situated for the work day. Make a genuine effort to smile a lot and offer to help people if they need it and encourage your staff to ask questions and offer suggestions to make the office run better.

          3. kittymommy*

            LOL, I just asked my Dr about this yesterday. He said for a great many of his patients it helps them relax and not be so tense (distraction), though he has some whom he can tell either prefer silence so he doesn’t talk during it. He said it’s at the end it’s always about them being relaxed enough for him to perform the exam in the least painful way as possible.

            1. Sleeve McQueen*

              The best distraction I ever had for a pap smear was a sudden burning sensation on my kneecap. Turns out the bolts on the angle lamp was not tight enough so it has slipped down and bulb was resting on my skin.

          4. MMD*

            I always use small talk. I think it’s more awkward for the patient to lie there in silence.

        2. Wendy Darling*

          My gynecologist asks me something complicated right before she does anything uncomfortable. Like about some detail of my job that she knows it’ll take me five minutes to explain, so instead of thinking about speculums I’m staring at the ceiling and trying to explain something about data pipelines to a gynecologist.

          It works great.

          1. Admininja*

            I had a doctor do the same! It’s super weird talking about a storm water line repair or an issue on the construction site during a Lady Exam, but it’s far less awkward, & I’m distracted. I’ll take it!

      3. MusicWithRocksIn*

        I admit that for a long time I thought my dentist had the most amazing memory. Then I realized my doctor and OBGYN were doing it too and it finally occurred to me they were making notes.

        1. The Rural Juror*

          Yep. My optometrist has an *amazing* memory and would remember things I didn’t, like that we both grew up in the same state many hundreds of miles away. After the third annual visit and she remarked about my career, I figured out that she was definitely taking notes. Not that I mind!

        2. World's Most Common Initials*

          LOL, same. The first several times I went to my current dentist I was floored by his memory for mundane details about my life. It took me way too long to figure out then note taking angle. He was a natural with it.

      4. quill*

        The family dentist ALWAYS asked about my studies when his fingers were somewhere around my tonsils. Even years after I had graduated, lol.

        To be fair, he never did get a comprehensible answer about them!

      5. Gray Lady*

        This is interesting. My doctor doesn’t tend to go in for that kind of small talk, which I don’t personally mind. She’s pretty much all business, though in a personable and approachable way. My hairstylist, dentist, and hygienist all seem to take a different tack from the notetaking one: they hold up the conversation pretty much themselves and don’t require a lot of interaction. With the hygienist and the dentist this is a relief because it tells me they’re intelligent enough to realize that asking questions of someone receiving dental work is a bit silly. With the hairstylist, it’s a nice balance for me because I’m introverted and don’t tend to like talking a lot to relative strangers, but it’s not a constant monologue where I can’t get a word in edgewise — there’s just enough room that if something she says sparks a response I can make to keep a friendly conversation going, I can do it. She’s really good at that aspect of her job (as well as being an excellent hairstylist).

      6. Sleepless*

        Veterinarians do it too! It was easier in the days of paper records, though. The most personable vet I have ever worked with had notes jotted on the pet information sheet that went back years. She always asked pet owners how their son’s baseball tournament went, or their trip to the beach, or whatever. Clients adored her.

      7. Clisby*

        Not in my experience. Or, to be accurate, it’s not uncommon for my dentist or doctor to ask about my children, because we all go to the same dentist and doctor. But that’s about it.

      8. Gumby*

        Yup, my eye doctor absolutely did (he’s retired, I am verklempt, I have no idea what to do next). He even remembered who referred me to his practice. I should ask that person who they are seeing now…

        I suspect my dentist does as well, but less detailed. But he’s just good at general small talk too. And even at not asking questions when I can’t answer.

        1. bubbled*

          This topic is such a surprise to me. I can’t think of a single time when a dentist, doc, pediatrician for my kids, etc. remembered a particular detail about my life, so I’ve never expected it. Now that I think about it, I did have a hairstylist who would ask about a friend who was also his client so he probably had a note about that. When I used to teach EFL, and had a lot of students, I took notes about my students because I had troubling remembering everyone’s name and I felt bad about that. Many times my students were flabbergasted when I would ask on Monday about a previously mentioned movie/visit they had seen/made over the weekend.

    2. polymorphism*

      It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, the Farley file, named for FDR’s campaign manager. There are probably even apps for this task at this point.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        There sure are, and some CRM tools have been around for over 20 years. There are probably CRM tools for the medical field, just like there are for recruiting, sales, etc.

        People used to jot things down in notebooks or file cards; now they can add info to customer files for the relationship management process.

    3. pleaset cheap rolls*

      If you need to take notes to remember things, take notes. But at a more basic level, the OP’s situation is about dealing with a handful of people the OP interacts with many many times each year, perhaps even several times a week. Not a large number of relative strangers seen only a few times a year. Listening and being open in the point. Unless there are specific memory issues, notes seem besides the point.

      1. Emilia Bedelia*

        I think it’s a good exercise for OP to think about, however, just to get them in the habit of asking these questions and caring about the answers. Even if they don’t actually try to write down or remember those things, putting in the effort to get to know their team as people will help OP to seem more approachable.

        1. Hex Code*

          Yeah honestly when I’m in a period of severe depression or social anxiety where, as the LW mentions, I’m likely to be consumed with my own negative thoughts, it is beneficial to mechanize social tasks — as simple as, “my friend mentioned something last time so this time when I see her I will ask her how it went.”

      2. NotJane*

        I’m not sure when or why, but somewhere along the line, I started making a more conscious effort to remember little details from conversations and bring them up the next time I spoke to or saw that person. And in my experience, it’s incredibly effective. I think of it as sort of a lifehack for getting people to like you or warm up to you or think of you as approachable.

        That being said, it’s a skill, and like all skills, it takes practice. I happen to be an extrovert, so it’s a skill that probably comes more naturally to me, but making it an ingrained habit still required a conscious, deliberate effort over time on my part. So I think it’s rather ungenerous to insinuate that anyone who is not adept in this regard must have “specific memory issues”.

        For someone like OP, who’s a self-professed “introvert” and struggles with depression and anxiety, I think taking notes – whether in the moment or just after – is good advice. Since it sounds like these interactions make OP anxious, taking notes will give her something actionable and concrete to do, which could very well alleviate some of the pressure and awkwardness she feels while engaging with her employees. At least, it’s easier to remember to take notes than it is to remember to “listen and be open” when you’re already a ball of nerves.

        Of course, it’s very possible OP shouldn’t be a manager, which is fine! I shouldn’t be a software engineer. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and natural talents. But I think it’s worth a shot, especially since OP seems to want to improve in this regard. She may never win the “Most Approachable Manager of the Year” award (although if that’s the update to this post, that would be awesome), but with some guidance and practice, she could probably go from being unapproachable to approachable as a manager. I’m rooting for her, at least.

    4. Koalafied*

      This really goes a long way. One of the easiest ways to show interest in/kindness to someone is to ask them what ended up happening with something they told you about in a previous conversation. It shows that 1) you were actually listening during the conversation and not just waiting for your turn to speak, and 2) you remembered what they shared, even though there was no obvious direct benefit to you, solely (or mostly) because you care about how their life is going beyond the limited sphere you share.

    5. Firebird*

      When my doctor wants to distract me, he asks a computer question and I go into lecture mode. When he said he didn’t know how to do backups, his nurse looked at him in disgust and told him to ask his 13-year-old.

  2. voyager1*

    AAM pretty much nails it with her sample conversations. Another thing to think about it we are paid to get along and be agreeable at a workplace. It may not be written in the job duties but it is expected. I do think that since you are a new manager you can turn this around, follow AAM’s example with those sample conversations.

    I would also stop thinking about yourself like you do in paragraph 2. While that neurotypical classification may help you understand yourself, at work folks are not going to take that into account with your personality. With conscious effort you can overcome being seen as unapproachable.

    1. pedant*

      I don’t think you know what “neurotypical” means.

      “Neurotypical” is a more inclusive way of saying “normal.” (It’s right there in the word: “neuro” = brain + “typical” = well,… typical.)

      The LW is saying they are NOT autistic, etc. and that Alison and the commenters shouldn’t factor that into her/our responses.

      There’s no reason for the LW not think of of themselves as neurotypical.

      Neurotypical is in fact precisely what nearly all co-workers will expect in nearly all workplaces, and the LW seems well aware that they can put in work to seem more approachable – which is exactly why they asked for help in doing so.

      1. AnonRonRon*

        I read that comment as saying that while LW is seeing themselves as “neurotypical introvert with anxiety and depression,” people at work don’t have all that context, so LW just seems unapproachable. That being said, I don’t think it’s helpful to say “stop thinking of yourself that way” because…that’s how they are, and it’s good to know that. But as a fellow neurotypical introvert with anxiety and depression, it’s important to be able to step outside your own self-perception and see what about your behavior is giving people this impression of you, in order to figure out how to course-correct.

      2. LilyP*

        Maybe a dumb question but if OP has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety aren’t they by definition NOT neurotypical? Or do people typically use neurotypical/neurodivergent exclusively about autism spectrum/ADHD?

        1. nonbinary writer*

          Usage varies. Some consider all mental illnesses to be neurodivergence, some only consider things like ADHD/autism/dyslexia/dyspraxia to be neurodivergence, some consider some mental illnesses to be neurodivergence but not others.

          I’m on the bipolar spectrum, which is cause by a difference in how neurotransmitters are wired. It’s an inherent part of who I am, and even with medication to mitigate the hardest/most damaging symptoms, it still has a huge impact on how I experience and process the world around me. In the way that those with ADHD struggle with regulating focus because of how their brain is structured, I struggle with mood regulation because of how my brain is structured. So for those reasons, I consider myself neurodivergent, but not everyone with bipolar does.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            I’ve also seen neurodivergent applied to people with extremely high/low IQ, as well as ADHD/autism/dyslexia/dyspraxia/APD. (Not aiming to get into a debate about the value of IQ tests at the moment, but it’s another example of how usage varies.)

        2. ecnaseener*

          There’s some variation in how the term is used – i believe it originally meant the same as allistic (ie not autistic). More commonly now, it means you don’t have a neurodevelopmental disorder (such as adhd or autism). But sometimes it may mean you have no mental conditions/illnesses at all.

      3. MMD*

        I see the labels, even the “normal” ones, as a possible problem regarding communication. If your brain is busy analyzing and labeling, it could take away from spontaneous communication. There’s something to be said for simplicity and getting away from labels and overthinking.

    2. Koalafied*

      “Neurotypical” means not having any significant cognitive difficulties (neuro + typical = brain functions like a typical person). I think LW included that as a way of saying, “I don’t have a disability that explains why this is hard for me, I’m just your run-of-the-mill introvert with garden-variety/well-managed depression & anxiety who finds socializing a bit challenging and feels a bit lost trying to navigate this.” I think you might have read it as the reverse, “neuroatypical” (neuro + atypical = brain does not function like a typical person).

    3. CoveredInBees*

      I assumed they included the part about being neurotypical to avoid the commenters focusing on whether they are or not. It seems to get raised in the comments quite frequently.

    4. Clisby*

      I think the 2nd sample conversation is WAAAYYY over the top, and if I were the employee, I’d just be wanting to get. out. of. this. conversation. No need to spread treacle all around. Just have a conversation.

      1. SilentDoc*

        I see what you mean that the 2nd conversation was very involved. I think though the idea was the first interaction is not much more than an exchange of information between Boss and Employee; the second interaction is a true conversation between two *people* who are a boss and an employee, so the human elements of the issue are acknowledged alongside the information being communicated. The first interaction is perfectly polite and appropriate, but impersonal.

      2. Allonge*

        Part of it may be because Alison wanted to have a visible difference throughout, to serve as an example for someone who may be waaaay too much on the side of the first sample. It’s a spectrum, not a binary.

      3. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

        I can understand that for direct and straightforward style people this kind of conversation is OTT, but as a manager it’s important to remember that some of the people who work for you prefer a different communication style to your natural preferences and that “flexing” to meet them where they are is part of your job.

        Much like the dreaded compliment sandwich style of feedback, which some people find patronizing af and others like having a few moments to wrap their heads around.

    5. Sparrow*

      My last boss did exactly what Alison is recommending here. We virtually never talked about anything that wasn’t work related, but I consider(ed) him very approachable as a manager because he was always engaged when it came to my work. He also actively asked for my input on problems and projects beyond my strict work duties and took what I said seriously. So I was comfortable going to him with work issues, voluntarily offering my opinions, being more proactive in volunteering for new responsibilities, etc. because I knew he would listen. I got to do a lot of cool projects in that role, and it was in part because I was comfortable expressing my interest in them.

      My current boss is more along the lines of convo 1, and that’s fine for us. However, I was already confident in offering my opinions and comfortable asking for things I needed. I consider her approachable in that she does want me to speak up and always responds very well, so I feel comfortable continuing to approach her in these ways. But she doesn’t invite you to approach her about work topics the way my last boss did, and if I wasn’t already confident in my abilities, if I wasn’t ok speaking up proactively, I’m sure I would feel hesitant to approach her and would probably feel unheard and underutilized.

  3. ThatGirl*

    Here’s another thought: Work on faking a little warmth if need be — smiles, for instance, and a friendly tone. Small talk doesn’t have to be super involved – joke about needing a little more coffee, compliment someone on the cookies they brought in, that sort of thing. Focus on coming across as a little friendlier and kinder (I’m not saying you’re mean or cold or anything, just that maybe you need to show that more externally).

    Also, I agree with Alison that offering to help people with work things as needed (“let me know if you need me to nudge someone”) can go a long way. My manager is always telling me to let her know if I’m running into problems with people getting back to me, for instance.

    1. EH*

      I think this is good advice; tone and facial expressions can do a lot of heavy lifting here. If you’ve ever worked in public-facing, customer-service type jobs, that’s often good training to draw on for how to let people know without words that you are open to helping them. I think of it as the difference between my internal dialogue being “what do they want?” when someone approaches me, vs. “how can I help them?” Gives your face/tone/attitude a lift that people tend to notice and respond to, and can set them at ease.

      1. Absurda*

        I was thinking of this, too. When people approach and smile and causal “hi, what’s up?” or something like that comes across a lot more approachable than a blank stare and “what do you need?” go a long way.

      2. Extroverted Bean Counter*

        Yes! Thanks to years of working in the restaurant industry, I now have Resting Friendly Face. Without even saying a single word I get people approaching me about all kinds of things. If I had to describe my RFF, it’s slightly raised eyebrows, a hint of a smile, and looking alert and engaged with my eyes.

        In public it means I get asked for help in stores a lot. At work it means on my team of seven people, several of whom might be more knowledgeable about any given subject area, I’m the one nearly everyone comes to with questions. People will also relax more around me and tell me details/go off on small rants and asides about projects or customers that they wouldn’t do with other accountants.

        It’s helpful for me because as the Money Police it’s often hard to get people to want to talk to you, haha.

        1. R*

          I had a manager for a while who had a reputation for being very intimidating and I’m skittish as a rabbit. After a while, she started smiling warmly whenever I came to her office, even though that was very much not her usual tone—she was trying to set me at ease. Her reading me so well and making that kind of effort to help me feel comfortable make a huge difference to me at work. Sometimes all it takes is obviously wanting to be kind.

        2. Tupac Coachella*

          Good point about RFF, I never thought of it that way! I would describe myself *very* similarly to OP’s description, and I work in a field where being seen as approachable is a requirement to do the job well. I’ve cultivated a standard “OMG, I’m so glad you’re here!” face, and it goes a long way toward making people feel at ease and perceiving me as friendly and interested, even when I’m having a hard day. I usually DO genuinely care, I just have a personality that makes it harder for me to show it in a way that other people understand without putting some effort into it.

    2. calonkat*

      I was working on a reply along these lines (then hit refresh)

      I’ve never been a manager at work, but as one who is managed, pay attention to how you look when someone approaches you. It’s not a natural thing for many of us to smile, but you can train yourself to do it. It makes a real difference in your tone of voice, and how you come across. I don’t mean forcing a Joker grimace, but just feel the corners of your mouth rise. Do this when starting work conversations and when answering the phone and it becomes second nature.

      I am aware this hedges towards “you’re so pretty when you smile” territory, but I’m thinking of the managers I’ve had who always seemed irritated when I approached them (even if they weren’t, they NEVER smiled or seemed at all happy to see me) and the ones who regularly smile (or at least aren’t frowning) when I approach. Everyone is busy sometimes, and it’s not always appropriate, but do give a thought to how you are viewed when people have questions or you approach them.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Yes, for sure. I’m wondering what the OP does when people do approach them; that might be a good chunk of it — it’s likely unintentional but easy to fix.

      2. FunTimes*

        Yes, and I think you can work on projecting warmth without a big smile, if that doesn’t feel natural to you. Being open and pleasant in your tone, words, posture, facial expression. And, as Alison said, being proactive about inquiring into people’s opinions, expertise, workload, stress levels, etc. will go a long way.

        FWIW, I’m also an introvert with anxiety, and I’ve had friends tell me they thought I was a snob or I was intimidating when we first met. This always blows my mind, because my social anxiety is sending totally different messages! But it’s good to be aware that others have their own lenses which will impact how they perceive you. As a woman, I don’t want to lean too far into “be warm! be approachable!” because it can be such a gendered expectation that ends up undermining you at work. But I think there is a happy medium where you push yourself a little bit past your comfort zone while still feeling like you’re able to be yourself in professional relationships.

        1. A Person*

          For me as an anxious introvert manager I find concentrating on trying to send this message of help / warmth really goes a long way. Now that I’ve been doing things like 1:1s for years it comes fairly naturally but concentrating on feeling like meetings with my reports are things to look forward to and maintaining a positive attitude about them really helps. I worry you might end up in the cycle of “worried I’m doing it wrong” > stress about interactions > tendency to rush meetings / interactions > coming off as less interested.

          It’s also extremely useful to have meeting notes (sometimes shared, but don’t have to be) that include some of these things you plan to do. For example, I have the note “what can I help with” for every 1:1 session and I’ll put positive feedback in there too. In personal notes I might also make a reminder to ask about how personal things are going occasionally, especially if they might end up in work support (i.e. “you mentioned you’re moving soon, do you need help planning time off or some flexible hours?”)

          I agree with Alison – I worry less about the social aspect. I’ve had really good managers who rarely talked socially to me. Approachability is much more about (1) being willing and appearing happy to meet and (2) making sure your reports feel able to ask you for whatever work-related help they need.

          I’m going to reiterate the “appearing” piece too – when a report asks me for a 4 PM Friday meeting I may be worried about it or frustrated or whatever, but I’m going to do my best to be pleasant and upbeat in my responses. Honestly at this point I’ve been doing this long enough (and have been lucky enough with who I work with) that I do look forward to interactions with my reports but when I was a new manager I was DEFINITELY nervous. Maybe all my years projecting calm happiness eventually translated!

      3. A Feast of Fools*

        When I worked in Inside Sales, where our customers couldn’t see us smile so we couldn’t possibly veer into “you’re so pretty when you smile” territory, we were given mirrors to mount on our monitors or cube walls in our line of sight so we could see if we were smiling or not. Because tone of voice and delivery absolutely change when you’re smiling.

      4. TootsNYC*

        I’ve never been told I’m unapproachable, but I do know that people who work for me have often apologized for interrupting me.

        I always say, “that’s my job, to be interrupted, I’m always happy to have you interrupt me.”

        It was particularly bad at my assignment before this one, so I’ve asked my deputy whether I seem so absorbed that it feels off-putting–she said no. So I don’t know–maybe it’s that our entire department was so busy, and they wanted to be helpful, but I tried really hard to make them feel they could.

        I also wondered if I worked so hard at making them feel they could be autonomous that maybe I overdid it, and they felt they HAD to be autonomous? We had a very friendly relationship; I tried to be empowering and helpful to them.

        I always felt bad when they apologized for interrupting me.

        1. JB*

          It may have actually been the opposite.

          My current manager is very, let’s say, giving with her time. To the point where she will allow employees to come into her office for work-related reasons and then stay for half an hour chatting, and her solution to certain employees not being able to do their work (due to incompetence) is that she will just do it for them, rather than re-shuffling duties (or, heaven forbid, hiring someone actually capable of doing the job).

          So – I do sometimes apologize for interrupting her, because I’ve seen people hanging out in her office all day like it’s party grand central and I know she does have things to do that she’s behind on.

    3. Jack Straw*

      This may sound silly, but when I taught interpersonal communication lessons I advised students struggling with this to practice facial expressions while watching TV. Speeches or TED Talks are especially good for this, too. Getting your face muscles used to and comfortable with giving an encouraging smile, nodding and a head tilt to show you’re listening, etc.

    4. Koalafied*

      Yes, I’ll often tell my report if she seems to be having difficulty with another team/department something like, “If you need me to throw some weight around, you can always CC me on your next email to them so I can be the one to nag if they still don’t respond.” Or if I notice she’s sending a lot of emails after hours, I’ll mention it and say, “I know you are happiest flexing your hours over a longer workday, and that’s perfectly alright with me, but if any of these late hours are more about your workload being too heavy than they are about your preferred schedule, please let me know so we can get it back down to a manageable level.”

      In theory, she’s heard me say each of those things many, many times over the years and occasionally taken me up on it, so it’s not like I’m not giving her any new information when I say it. But by occasionally reminding her I’m reinforcing that I really do want her to come to me if she needs support. If you just say it during onboarding and expect them to take the initiative to come to you when they need support…well, some people will, but others will hesitate and wonder if you really meant it, if their issue really rises to the level of needing a manager intervention, if you’re going to think less of them for needing your help, etc. Periodic reminders show that you think of offering them support as a normal part of being their manager and not a burden or a sign that they can’t hack it.

    5. Cat Tree*

      Good idea to preemptively offer help. It’s also important to enthusiastically help when asked. I’m not a manager, but a senior level SME. It’s part of my job to help junior employees. Very new employees often feel bad about asking and are almost apologetic. So I make a point to help them and treat it as mundane, like OF COURSE I will do that. I don’t outright tell them that they don’t need to feel like they’re imposing, but I make sure that the people who are most afraid to ask get good reinforcement when they do.

    6. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

      Focusing on your energy and outward presentation would make a huge difference. As an employee, I have a harder time connecting with Bosses that always seem rushed, checking their phones, like they don’t have time to talk to me about even work-related issues, whereas the bosses I’ve had that slow down and take the time to look me in the eye and be present during our interactions are the ones that engender loyalty and trust.

    7. mreasy*

      A little weather talk does a lot to humanize! I know it’s a cliche but it’s one for good reason.

  4. Yorick*

    “Approachable” doesn’t have to be about small talk or social graces. The worst boss I ever had was VERY into greeting people and asking about their weekend and everything. But he was horrible in every other way that matters. That just made his incessant greetings and attempts at conversation even more irritating. And they were plenty irritating to begin with (he would interrupt a work-related conversation to say good morning, even if he had already told you good morning that day; he would say, “Hi Yorick, how are you, what are you doing?” literally as I walked into the bathroom; he would ask about your weekend all week long, and wanted DETAILS). But if he hadn’t been unreasonable and unhelpful and infuriating as a manager, I probably wouldn’t have minded all that. I might have even thought he was a lovable doofus.

    1. Maggie*

      I’m so glad to see this comment! I know it might seem obvious, but OP should check if they’re doing their job properly. I have a boss who is cold. Doesn’t smile even when working with children, garbage at small talk, never starts the conversation. Whatever. I could be fine with all of this. But I put her in the category of “unapproachable” bc she doesn’t write back to emails and she doesn’t communicate about projects that affect others. And the thing is, everyone knows she’s competent; her projects turn out better than other bosses on staff. But she leaves everyone in the dark while she’s working, and if you ask reasonable, appropriate questions, she doesn’t always reply in a timely manner, or at all.

    2. What She Said*

      OMG you just described a former boss I worked with in a department outside of mine. I initially loved that he would pop in and chit chat but man work-wise couldn’t stand him. He was clearly over compensating for something. Just wish I had seen it sooner.

  5. UKgreen*

    As an employee I’d much rather have conversation one than conversation two. YMMMV.

      1. ShortT*

        Most definitely not the only one.

        Even as a patient, I prefer the all-business approach. Small talk is not my forte.

    1. sun glow*

      Yep same. I need the convo to be straight. I don’t have time/care about people’s personal lives. I also don’t expect anyone to have time/care about mine.

        1. UKDancer*

          Yes you’re asking about the work, how it’s going and whether they need you to intervene and noticing what they’re doing. None of the conversation is about peoples’ personal lives.

          If the feedback is that the OP should be more approachable then the people she’s managing are obviously not finding her existing style works for them and perhaps would like her to be more expansive. So it may be worthwhile trying some of the approach Alison suggested which tries to check if people are having a problem with work, praises someone for their contribution and then lets them get on with things.

          1. Momof1*

            It’s worth noting that OP may be more like Example 2 typically, and has employees that would prefer Example 1, though. She really just needs to figure out which it is, and adjust accordingly.

            In addition, Alison seems to be using a different definition of “unapproachable” than what I assumed from reading the letter. An approachable manager, or really any coworker, is one I have no second thoughts about e-mailing, messaging on Slack, or knocking on their office door. While a style like the one in Example 1 may come off as unapproachable to some, I see it more as, Does the person have time for me or does it always seem like I am interrupting? Are all of our interactions on their schedule, or are they flexible enough to sometimes be the one to rearrange part of their day if I need them? That kind of stuff, far more than communication or coaching style, is what goes into approachable-ness, for me. I think OP needs more specifics before she can choose a plan of action here.

            1. HR & Cats*

              I highly doubt that she’s being seen as unapproachable if she’s having conversation 2 and they prefer 1. That’s not logical.

            2. lasslisa*

              Part of the subtext of conversation 2’s more leisurely pace is exactly that the manager “has time for you”. I walk away from conversations like that feeling like the manager genuinely cares about how my work is going and is interested in hearing about it, and therefore it’s ok if I go stop by with some other question or update later. If the manager only wants to run down their bulleted list and get yes/no answers, then the message I get is that I shouldn’t bother them unless it’s critical.

      1. Roscoe*

        Wow. You sound like a peach to work with. Nothing was personal at all, yet you “don’t have time to care about people’s lives”

      2. Observer*

        Yep same. I need the convo to be straight. I don’t have time/care about people’s personal lives. I also don’t expect anyone to have time/care about mine.

        I hope you don’t manage people. Because Convo 2 was totally straightforward, and totally work focused. The only difference is that Manager actually acknowledges that Employee actually did something right, shows that they actually paid attention to the meeting, and offers to help as needed.

      3. pleaset cheap rolls*

        “I don’t have time/care about people’s personal lives”

        Great for you.

        I don’t see how this relates to what AAM suggested.

      4. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        I hope you’re not bragging about that, although it sounds like you might be. I hope you don’t have a co-worker who is having a worst day, and just needs someone to give them a kind look. And I hope you never have a worst day, and you’ve so alienated all your co-workers that none of them want to be bothered with you.

      5. Lana Kane*

        If you are a manager you do need to care, because I can guarantee you that people’s personal lives come into the equation at work.

    2. Spicy Tuna*

      Ok…sure, but that’s not really relevant here. It still stands that the second conversation could help the LW improve upon the feedback that was directly given to her to try to be more approachable.

      1. Viette*

        Yes, the employees of this letter writer feel that she is unapproachable and therefore this technique is being recommended. This isn’t an answer about how to be a perfect manager that everybody loves, it’s an answer about how to fix a specific problem.

        If the letter writer’s employees preferred conversation 1, then she probably wouldn’t have written in.

    3. Deezil*

      Yeah I’m too busy and stressed to have long and drawn outs about things. Hit the high points and let’s keep it moving. That’s how I want news and updates and how I give it. Conversely, I love chit-chatting when I’ve hit a slow period, and love long updates if I have the time.

      1. Observer*

        What in Convo 2 is “chit chat”? Acknowledging that employee might be busy? Acknowledging some potential dfficulties in a work process? Offering to help?

        I honestly don’t get it.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          Yes, chitchat is about stuff like weekend plans, local news, little anecdotes about your life/day, family updates – nothing in options 1 OR 2 had any chitchat.

          1. Observer*

            That’s INCREDIBLY ironic. And proves that this is not about clear and straightforward communications.

            If they have a problem with that comment, then they should have replied to that comment. Or been EXPLICIT that that’s what they were referring to. Instead they are replying to a comment that explicitly says that they don’t like *Allison’s* conversation – where there not one single thing that’s personal or “chitchat”.

    4. Roscoe*

      Sure, but if you are worried about coming across unapproachable by your reports, as OP is, maybe its not about your preferences. Doing her preferences is how she got this reputation.

      If you keep doing the same thing, you can’t expect a different result. She’s been doing it her way since she was a kid.

      1. Coenobita*

        Yes, this is so important! If OP had different direct reports, yes, maybe conversation #1 would be better. But OP is specifically asking about how to be more approachable, because she knows that her coworkers want her to be more approachable. The goal here isn’t to find one objectively correct approach, it’s to figure out approaches that work effectively with different people in different situations.

    5. Witch*

      As an employee I think I believe I’d like conversation number one. I take a lot of pride in my work and want to keep on task. But two is better from a managerial perspective because you’re asking more questions and making more comments. Being clear and direct is great when you just want to know something simple, but sometimes a lot of background information on a project status or an employee needs to be almost teased out.

      For instance I’ve been in plenty of meetings where I focus on a simple update for one project, but then realize I forgot to add that Janet is asking for a new form or whatever. Its just small things that help give my manager more context that I forget to add if I’m thinking of status updates in a step-by-step way.

      1. Anonym*

        Two is also more likely to surface nuances and issues, and make clear that the manager is willing to assist and how.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          Yes, in # 2 there’s a lot more room for the employee to provide context / other info / raise things they find pertinent, whereas #1 is just about checking off the manager’s list of the bare bones they want to know. Status: on time. , etc. #2 gives the employee way more useful information about how they’re being perceived, what they should keep doing, whereas #1 just extracts info from the employee without giving almost any in return.

        2. Koalafied*

          Yes, manager #1 seems like they’re just being perfunctory and doing the bare minimum they have to as a manager – giving assignments and making sure they’re getting done.

          Manager #2 seems like they’d be more likely to be advocating for the employee in the larger company, keeping an eye out for professional development opportunities the employee could benefit from, and so on. They’re managing the employee instead of just farming work out to them.

          I say this because I’m also deeply introverted and I’m naturally more inclined to operate like conversation #1. But a decade into my career I’ve learned that’s fine for colleagues. It’s less than ideal for direct bosses and reports. Part of me, especially early on, loved having hands-off managers who barely asked questions and regularly canceled our check-ins… but over time I realized I was not really living up to my full potential because nobody was taking a close enough interest in my work to see where I could grow.

          And as a manager, I went through most of a year when I was so swamped with my non-management work that I really deprioritized my direct report, and at her annual review when I read her self-review I realized that I didn’t a first-hand deep understanding of where she was in her career, where she wanted to go, how her previous year’s performance had supported or not supported that, and how to make next year’s work better for her professional development. All I could truthfully say was that she had gotten her work done and it had been acceptable enough that I was able to almost completely ignore her without any processes breaking down. I felt like a pretty lame manager that year.

        3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          #1 reads to me like the supervisor trusts the employee.
          #2 reads more like the supervisor is rooting around for discrepancies or bluffs.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            Really? You mean that the employee is bluffing about something? It had not occurred to me that someone might take a manager making sure you’re not needing their help with anything and saying something nice about you is laying some sort of a trap.

            1. Eliza*

              I’m not sure if I’d call it laying a trap, but I do feel a certain lack of trust in #2 as well. It feels slightly condescending to me, like the boss thinks I need my emotions managed for me. I’m somebody who’s uncomfortable with praise in general, though, so my view may not be typical.

              1. Eliza*

                Now that I look over it again, I think the one part that raised my hackles in particular was responding to “I planned for a delay” with “That was smart to do!”. Being praised for basic competence makes me feel like my boss is pleasantly surprised to see basic competence from me, rather than seeing me as a working adult who’s competent by default.

                1. Texas*

                  I think that whether planning for a delay (or anything similar) is a basic competence depends on how experienced the person is. I’ve been in my first post-college job for 4 months and I wouldn’t know enough about what to expect to plan for a delay in my workflow. So if LW is managing less experienced people it could still be fit for the script.

            2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              Trap’s not the right word. Maybe it’s rooting out overconfidence or timidity in pushing back on deadlines instead of an outright bluff, but it’s there.

      2. Theo*

        The point is, the second conversation is a suggestion of how a people manager may consider approaching staff. Everyone will always have their preferences.

    6. NotAnotherManager!*

      I am the same way, but over a decade of management experiences tells me that most people prefer the second. I love when I run into someone who’s a convo #1er – they speak my language, and I’ll happily go that route – but it’s about what others prefer, not what I do.

      1. Lana Kane*

        Agreed, as a manager my experience has been that Conversation 2 has helped me build relationships and coach staff with positivity and support. And I can’t count how many times that grace has been extended to me in return.

    7. socks*

      OK, but presumably you aren’t complaining about your manager being unapproachable then. Alison didn’t say this was the best advice for every employee in every situation, just one option for responding to the specific feedback this specific letter writer got.

    8. Wisteria*

      I, as well. I think the way this input adds to the advice given is to learn to pick up on other people’s conversational styles. I have been told by one person that I am short with them and by another person that I am efficient. The first person doesn’t like interacting with me and told me so, the second person does like interacting with me and told me so. I am the same person person with both.

      Picking up on people’s conversational styles is a skill, one that can be learned. It will be easier for some people to learn than others, but it is learnable. Start with a growth mindset: “I can learn this!” Then be patient with yourself as you put the effort in.

    9. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

      I do too, but the thing is that as a manager, OP has to be able to work with the personalities they have on their team. As a manager, it’s less about the technical more about the people. They have to find the ways to connect and inspire their team, so if their team is more of a conversation 2 team, they need to adapt.

      I’m an introvert that has read as ‘stuck up’ before, so I sympathize. But a manager deals with people, and OP has to become more comfortable with the fact that not all people respond to a manager the same way they do.

    10. I'm just here for the cats*

      I like both, but in former jobs I was told that I wasn’t friendly enough because my conversations would go like #1 (i wasn’t a manager). This was because in my first job (Job A) after college it was drilled down to all of us that we had to be fast and to the point. At Job B I was told that I wasn’t friendly enough to my coworkers. I would call say “I’m helping client and I need X can you help?” Basically I was told I needed to chitchat more. I would talk with my coworkers during slow times, during breaks, etc. But I was very matter of fact when it came to me needing something.
      I’m in a different place now and this never is an issue.

    11. Sparkles McFadden*

      Me too, but most people don’t like that level brevity and bluntness. People want to know they are being seen and heard at work, and conversation #2 does that. A good manager knows how to approach different people in different ways…but you have to get to know them in order to do that.

    12. twocents*

      Then I assume you wouldn’t complain about your boss being unapproachable. This letter writer is receiving those complaints so she needs to go down Route 2.

    13. Mental Lentil*

      But this is also part of being a good manager and knowing your team. Because when to have convo 1 vs when to have convo 2 is very much dependent upon the situation and the person you’re having the convo with.

    14. CoveredInBees*

      Same. Number two felt like a lot of job-oriented small talk. Having to think of those little fillers would make it harder for me to focus on the actual core of the conversation.

    15. Lana Kane*

      Convo 2 is showing that the manager cares about how the work is coming along and whether the delays are impacting the employee. If as an employee you don’t want any of that and just want to be in and out, then ok, but then you might be seen as unapproachable by your manager. Whether you care about that or not is another story.

    16. ecnaseener*

      I get that. But if you’re the employee and your boss is trying to have conversation #2 with you, you don’t have to respond with as much detail. You can nudge the conversation back towards the short and (not especially) sweet version.

      Certainly the best managers will learn their employees preferences on this type of thing so they can employ the strategies that work best for each employee! But step 1 for this LW is to get some practice in with the chattier approach.

    17. hola my peeps*

      Me too, definitely. Just tell me what I need to know and let me get on with things. We’re all different and some of us aren’t looking for banter.

    18. Your Local Password Resetter*

      As an employee, I’d prefer the second. Because I know that far too much important info would never be communicated if I only ever had the first kind of conversation.

  6. hsteacher*

    I just want to say how much I love this advice! Now that I think about it the best supervisors I’ve had are the ones that really engage warmly and with interest when you talk about work.

    1. Van Wilder*

      I think this advice is great and really enjoyed the examples. (Alison – don’t write off fiction! Maybe a one act play??)

      I try to do this with people that do work for me, depending on how often I touch base with them. If it’s someone I talk to everyday, I can cut right to the point. If we rarely talk, as with some of the staff in India that work on my projects, I try to give them lots of context/background so they know why their assignment is important, compliment them on what they’ve done well, and give them info on my plans and what’s coming next.

      Not only is building rapport good for your staff and your reputation generally, but it really makes a difference in my work life, at least in my field. Better rapport means more loyal team members, which means that my projects may be better staffed when resources are scarce (which they always are.)

      1. Archaeopteryx*

        I would love to see Alison write a series of little morality plays about office life.

        1. JayemGriffin*

          Possible titles:
          Your Boss Sucks and Isn’t Going to Change
          Black Magic and Other Occupational Hazards

  7. Mystic*

    I don’t know if this’ll be helpful, but one of the things I do is nod to people in the hallway. Won’t work if you’re in someplace as big as Disney, or something, but just in general.
    I have the same problem talking/opening up to others, but that helped people think I was more approachable.

    1. Anonym*

      Acknowledgement is really key! It’s a small, consistent indicator that you recognize the person and presumably are open to hearing from them. It pre-answers the question of whether being approached is welcome.

    2. Joy*

      Seconding this! Thinking about co-workers or managers I considered “unapproachable”, they tended to be people who would never acknowledge my existence if we ended up in the same room/elevator/hallway and did not have a specific reason to be interacting.

      Conversely, the senior managers who I’ve seen create the best approachable culture under them are amazing at acknowledging every employee in many situations, regardless of whether or not that person works for them or is their subordinate four levels down the hierarchy. (My boss’s boss’s boss is like this and it’s amaaaaazing.)

    1. nona*

      Woman manager = manager of women. Women is a noun.

      Female manager = a manager who is a women. Female is an adjective.

      1. Just a hunch*

        Not necessarily. “Senior Woman Administrator” is the common title for the top-ranking female staff member in a collegiate athletics program. I won’t bore you or anyone else with a list of examples. Additionally, “female”, unfortunately, has taken a negative implication in some circles (especially when used as a noun, but also as an adjective) in a way that “male” does not. Grammar and word usage are dynamic.

    2. Same*

      That was my first thought, too. If you’re a woman / assumed to be a woman, and you aren’t smiling and cheery every moment of the work day, you’re “unapproachable”.

      1. butwhy*

        OMG. I am a female manager in a male dominated workspace and I have been beating myself up for two decades (not kidding) for everything LW outlined. I always knew I was held to different standards as a woman but after two decades of the same feedback I really started to believe that I was too unapproachable to effectively lead. On a separate but related (I guess) note, I just read a random comment somewhere, probably BuzzFeed, “don’t accept criticism from someone you would not take advice from” it really resonated with me so I am leaving it here in case anyone else needs to hear it.

        1. Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?*

          I am not a manager but a female teacher. I have a facial difference and I’m introverted. Early in my career, I got so much feedback similar to that of the LW. In my interview for my current position, I spoke to admin of how my face was built by my (male) doctors to be “neutral”. It is physically uncomfortable to smile so I only do so when something’s really funny or making me happy. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy to be there or that I don’t care. It’s been so good to have that to refer back to that if there’s a comment in my evaluations or if parents have questions. It’s funny because my students have never felt like I didn’t like them.

      2. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

        Ehh, it depends. I’m a small team leader in my male dominated field, and have been the youngest person and the only female in the room while being the chair of a major meeting. Not only do I have RBF, I am also not a cheery person. But my personality works with the group that I work with, so no one has that problem with me not being smiley or friendly.

        I have been in other situations where I have read as unapproachable/stuck up, it just depends on the climate of the org.

      1. Just a hunch*

        For what it’s worth, I’m still not convinced you’re doing anything wrong (from what you wrote). I’m pretty sure we’d work just fine together. Still, there’s that whole “when in Rome” thing, and I’ve been there. For me, trying to be someone I’m not is more fake and off-putting than just being my normal (apparently scary and unapproachable to some) self. I’m fortunate to have finally found my people, work-wise, where I don’t have to put up a facade every day.
        It’s a sucky position to be in. A lot of us have been there. Like I said earlier, I think we’d get along just fine.

      2. ecnaseener*

        I still wouldn’t rule out that gender plays a role in how approachable you’re expected to be :/

        1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

          I agree. I’m also very skeptical about the OP’s “unapproachable” status. If you listen to people, make time for them, and don’t act like an asshole then you’re approachable.
          Women can, and sometimes do, enforce bullshit patriarchal standards as Texan in Exile said.

  8. UKDancer*

    I think one of the things is to be interested in people. You may not excel at small talk but most people like talking about themselves. I have no interest in football but one of my staff did so I used to ask him on a Monday how the game went and on a Friday ask him whether it was going be at home or away. People like to feel their managers care about them as people.

    The other thing that I found helpful as a manager was taking time to get to know people, having regular catch ups with them. Obviously you don’t have to stand over them but fix a regular time when you catch up with each of your team on the work and anything else that’s going on. Having a regular slot for discussion also focuses the conversation so you’re not having as much awkward small talk but are having a more work focused session on the things that are going on.

    I think the third thing is to make sure you tell them what’s going on. I go to more senior meetings than they do so I make sure I feed back to them on what’s going on and ask their views. For example if senior management is discussing the coming priorities for the quarter I share what I can with my team. That way they feel like I’m engaging them and making sure things don’t come as a surprise.

    1. alwayswondered*

      I agree with this. I really like my manager but he seems to care less about me as a person. Pretty sure the only reason he knows i have kids is bc I bring it up. He rarely if ever asks how I am, or whats going on. It makes it easy to get stuff done. Tbh though I have a hard time going to him if I need something, want a change or need advice on how to handle something. He just seems so impersonal and unapproachable bc of it.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      I think you make a great point about keeping your team in the loop. There are so many times I’m given a task, but I don’t really know why I’m working on it or why it’s a bigger priority than what I had to stop working on in order to do it. It would be nice to feel more engaged and not just like a cog in the machine.

    3. Bagpuss*

      I agree with this.
      I’m an introvert and there are lots of people at work that I didn’t really have any shared interests with or any particular interest in their lives. However, I do make an effort – I greet people when I see them, I make a conscious effort to check in (and I do sometimes make brief notes to remind myself of who is interested in what / who has a a family member they a re worried about)

      It does help.

      I also try to be friendly – so if someone comes to my office I aim to smile and ask what I can do for them

  9. Daisy-dog*

    Well this advice was just what I needed as well. I am very similar to OP in every way described. I have found that I can work in some extra comments or praise into conversations, but my default setting is getting right to the point.

    1. Renee Remains the Same*

      Totally me. I thought someone stole my brain. I’m pretty convinced that I’m not meant for management and I’m pretty ok with it. But, I have to figure out what my next move is.

      Still, appreciated the insight about how to incorporate a bit more engagement into my conversations… though I run into issues where I’m not always quick to think of such things at the time. To compensate I ramp up my sociability or compliments when I remember and try to downplay my irritation when challenges come up (or fake not being irritated, though it doesn’t always work.) But, I’ve been using various coping strategies for about 15 years, so it’s a little hard for me to remember to adjust things… therapy helps, but my brain is STUBBORN.

    2. ThatGirl*

      And I don’t think you need to dance around whatever the point is for ages, but just a few little warm comments and showing that you’re listening can go a long way. Look for opportunities, and also be sure you’re not being brusque or chilly when people approach you.

      1. Daisy-dog*

        Yes, I have improved a lot over the last few years. Still keep it brief, but warmer. But I’m not great over email/Teams, so while I adore WFH I know I will connect better once we go back in sometimes and can at least smile while I give my to-the-point answers.

  10. Chilipepper Attitude*

    My spouse, who got told in his 40s that he was on the autism/asberger’s spectrum by our son’s psychiatrists, may not have “friendly” relationships with coworkers and people he manages but they do value him.
    He discovered the power of asking – he just asks and listens. He came home one day amazed that though he could not do anything to address the concerns of the staff, they felt better that he listened.

    He has also studied this a bit and, based on the research he found, he focuses on the 3 Cs: caring, consistency, and competency.
    He is consistent (does not show favoritism, shows is is reliable, et), competent (he does his job well, works to address staff concerns) and he is caring – he actually does care that staff have the things they need to do their jobs and to advance and he takes steps to show he cares. Mostly, as I said, by asking them and by listening.

    Focusing on the 3 Cs helps him structure what seems to come more naturally to others.

    I wish you the best OP!

    1. mf*

      I love this because it proves you don’t have to have a super social skills or be extremely chatty in order to be a good manager. Asking and listening is HUGE. Listening is especially powerful because most people just want to feel seen and heard.

    2. Jane of all Trades*

      I think this is excellent advice.
      LW – I think that one great way to show you care is that when you have a conversation with somebody, you focus on them. I see a lot of people doing emails or being otherwise distracted when having conversations with team members. To me that makes them seem unapproachable, because they are inadvertently signaling that I am not a priority during our conversation.
      Perhaps you can just focus on making the conversations you have with your team very successful: focus on them, turn away from the computer, and ask open ended questions to give them an opening to volunteer more information if they want to. The second part is to make sure to remember (even if you have to jot it down) important things, so that when you have a follow-up conversation they know you were paying attention because they don’t have to restart at zero.
      Not everybody is the life of the party, and you don’t have to be to seem approachable.

  11. Caroline Helstone*

    I think you may want to make sure your systems are serving your needs. Do you have weekly or monthly one on ones with the people you manage? Is employee concerns a recurring item on the agenda with time allocated to it? If you see people in person, do you say good morning and good evening and how are you while smiling? I think it is okay to say things that feel like small talk or bs, and find they are easier for me if I script the conversation in my mind. Also, try to build room in your schedule for handling anything that may come up so you can welcome disturbances.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Welcome disturbances is key. Do you employees feel they can come to you when there is a problem? Or do they think they are bothering you or interrupting more important work. Open door policy does not mean your door is literally open all the time and they can just chit chat with you. But your reports HAVE to know if they need help nudging another team or figuring out priorities, you won’t get all off kilter over things not going according to plan. They have to know you have their backs.

      I could care less if my boss remembers my wedding anniversary. I do care that boss knows my work schedule and can help me balance the priorities while ensuring I don’t burn out. My boss is very approachable that way even if she is not a morning person so you don’t talk to her before noon.

  12. Librar**

    I felt like I was reading a description of myself with the identifiers in the second paragraph! I also got “so mature” a lot as a kid, meaning “prefers to sit quietly instead of running around and screaming.”
    Most small talk doesn’t come naturally to me, but I found that a lot of people are happy to fill in the empty spaces in a conversation if you give them an opening. Asking questions that let people talk open-ended about how a project is going or what’s happening in their lives goes a long way towards building rapport. You might also find areas of interest that help you relate better to them, or learn more about things happening at work you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of!
    Some ideas for open-ended questions I’ve had luck with:
    “Can you talk to me a bit about how X process is going this month?” Lets the person walk you through what’s going on, gives them a chance to vent if appropriate, you can identify any pressure points or possible issues.
    “Do you have any thoughts on [recent company update]?” This can help you see a new initiative or update through the eyes of someone who it will impact differently.
    The key is to phrase these so that the person doesn’t feel put on the spot, but like they’re providing feedback that is genuinely valued and appreciated (which it is!). You’re off the hook for bearing the brunt of filling the conversational space, you learn more about your supervisees, and they’ll get used to seeing you as someone they can have extended, in-depth work conversations with.

    1. Absurda*

      Yes, this! I am also an introvert who struggles with depression and anxiety and very much prefer listening since that takes so much of the conversational burden off of me. I’ve always found listening easier than talking. You’d be surprised how far just listening to someone will take you in appearing friendly and approachable even if you don’t actually feel that way (be sure to set time/topic boundaries, though, some people really like to talk!). I also find it much easier to talk about work with people I don’t know well then move into more social things once I get more comfortable with them.

  13. Sanity Lost*

    Look to your facial and body language as well! As another introvert, this was something I struggled with. I had a dance teacher work with me to help overcome these.
    Are you hunching your shoulders, slouching, and/or crossing your arms in front of you? Are you unconsciously avoiding eye contact? During a meeting are you constantly looking at the table or the person who is talking? Do you have an RBF?

    All of these things give the impression of being closed off. It takes a conscious decision sometimes to overcome these. Try to remember to sit up straight with proper posture, this makes you seem more open and approachable. Instead of crossing your arms across your chest, fold your hands in front or behind you. This also “opens” you up. If eye contact is hard look at their eyebrows or their hairline. In the meeting, look at the speaker even just over their shoulder, it shows you are actively listening. If you have RBF, (it sounds weird), but breathe out through your nose and lift your chin a smidge. This doesn’t feel as forced as a smile and gives your face a more “serene” look. You may want to practice this in a mirror (I always felt like I was snorting when I started).
    I hope some of these help

    1. Witch*

      I said this up above a little, but I wanted to expand on my comment why I feel the second conversation works better. Simply put, asking more questions and generally being more approachable gets you more information as a manager. Taking Alison’s example in a slightly different way:

      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.

      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. Historically we’ve found that legal needs at least a week for approvals, so I suggest we push back our timeline around this step for future projects.

      Just asking people their opinion on things and following up you’ll be able to be a better maanger imo.

      1. Wisteria*

        More ideal:

        Manager: Hi employee, do you have a minute? *wait for acknowledgement* Can you give me 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: We need them by Friday to make our deadline. Do you think that will be a problem?
        Employee: No, that’s there typical timeline.
        Manager: Okay, thanks for letting me know. And do let me know if I can move things along for you.
        Employee: I will
        Manager: Ok, then have a great day

        1. Witch*

          Yeah, you don’t need to be all !!! about work and people and smiling like a loon at everyone to up your game around being considered more approachable. Small things like asking if they have time to chat if it’s not immediate or offering to help in some way are just simple steps you can take without adding all the “gooshy” language if it makes you uncomfortable.

          Generally, though, I’d keep an eye out for praising your staff and setting clear expectations with them; even if the expectation is, “You did XYZ and that really helped the project flow smoother. Thanks.”

    2. Simply the best*

      I’m really curious what part is the nightmare. The part where she said good job or the part where she said can I help? That’s really all I see that’s different.

      1. Wisteria*

        That’s so interesting that those are the only differences you see! To me, the second conversation has a lot of fluff that would make me impatient to listen to. Get to the point already! You can add in a “good job” and “can I help?” without all that fluff.

        1. mreasy*

          But that “fluff” also conveys information. Like, the aside about legal taking their time is responded to with the report explaining they expected the delay and planned for it. So you have a new unit of information about your report’s planning skills and foresight.

          1. Wisteria*

            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?

            Not fluffy:
            Manager: Are you feeling okay about the timeline?

            The real skill is not how to add fluff, it is with whom to add fluff.

            1. Oatmeal*

              Conversation 2 doesn’t convey the manager can help. That’s not fluff, that’s building relationships and conveying expectations around collaboration.

            2. elena*

              I would be fine with the more formal, less peppy tone that you prefer, but I do like that in the first version they specifically offered to help if needed. Honestly it sounds like your main objection is the phrasing and peppiness more than the content

            3. DeweyDecibal*

              Yes! Some people live for the fluff. Others would rather pull our teeth out than listen to it. The key is knowing who is who.

    3. Becca*

      I would argue that convo two IS the point for managers. If your employees never have any indication that you understand the context around their work and the situations they’re dealing with to actually deliver quality work on time, then they don’t have any idea of acceptable solutions, when something needs to be flagged to higher ups, etc. In the first conversation, the team member leaves with no clue of how they’re performing, no clue of if their manager has any idea of the difficulties that are typical with dealing with legal (and therefore the potential impact on the team and the team’s work), and no idea what kind of steps are appropriate to take if they can’t get movement on their own.

      In the second conversation, the employee leaves with a clear understanding that their boss knows the potential issues they might face, clear direction on what to do if they get stuck (ie this is important enough that you need to come to me and have me step in if you can’t get what you need on your own), and a clear understanding of what is viewed as “good work” and therefore it’s easier for them to keep delivering “good work.”

      Without that clarity coming out of the conversation, you’re wasting an opportunity as a manager to add 60 seconds to a conversation that adds huge value for your team member and therefore for your team’s output/function and impact to the business as a whole. I’m not saying I never have quick status check-ins with my direct reports (all the time over slack especially! Usually framed as “QQ – what’s the status on X project? – they answer – “Thank you!! Helpful for a meeting I’m in later today.”), but if convo two is your literal nightmare AND you’re a people manager who is responsible for hitting business goals and retention of a quality team, I’d reexamine why you think there’s no “point” to the second conversation.

      1. Witch*

        Yeppers peppers. I think people are reading conversation number two as forced cheerful or overly patronizing, but breaking it down the manager is just asking for and giving additional, necessary, information. My manager telling me I’m doing something correctly is something I actually do need to know–so I can keep doing it that way.

      2. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        Convo #1 might work if you’re supervising an assembly line with few variables. Convo #2 is pretty much for every other job.

    4. Anononon*

      Can I ask why? I’m just struggling to see what’s so awful about it. It’s literally a manager asking about the status of things, asking if the employee needs any help, and letting the employee know they did a good job on something. There’s literally nothing personal or off topic.

      1. Coenobita*

        Me too. From my perspective, Conversation #2 just sounds like human beings having a… conversation?

        I really like these tips on how to seem warmer and more approachable without getting personal. I think my boss could really use them – it seems like he can either be in Robot Boss Work mode or Fun Jokey Friend mode but I’d prefer a managerial approach that was somewhere in the middle!

    5. Calliope*

      Convo 2 probably takes an extra 30 seconds. If your nightmare is someone taking 30 seconds to say “good job on X” and “let me know if I can help,” then . . . well, good for you for having a pretty nice life, I guess.

    6. Archaeopteryx*

      All the extra verbiage in convo 2 is PART of the point, though. It’s expanding your view of what the point of these questions is beyond just the bare-bones “is this project on track”? Otherwise, you might as well have people fill in a tracking spreadsheet instead of bothering to talk in-person at all. Everything extra in convo #2 is on-topic and on-point, it’s just more of a two-way conversation with openings for the staff member to volunteer extra info.

      1. Wisteria*

        Otherwise, you might as well have people fill in a tracking spreadsheet instead of bothering to talk in-person at all.

        For some people, that is their dream manager …. :)

    7. Bon voyage*

      There are times when I’d prefer conversation 1, but I’m realizing that a) I’m an outlier and b) that’s true only if I have a strong rapport with the manager and know that I’ll be supported. In the absence of a positive working relationship (or to establish/maintain one), I think something like convo two is really important!

      1. ecnaseener*

        I actually think that’s a key point – there are TIMES when you want conversation 1. That’s probably true for everyone — if you’re completely swamped and stressed you want the bare bones.

        I think some people are picturing EVERY single conversation going like #2, and cringing at that. Both approaches should be in a manager’s toolbox.

        1. BRR*

          That’s a really great point. And I am not seeing what would turn convo 2 into a nightmare. It’s a little (very little) bit more but most people aren’t robots. And if the lw is asking for how to be more approachable, that means the lw’s direct reports feel like she’s unapproachable and saying convo 2 is a nightmare isn’t really helpful to the lw.

      2. miss chevious*

        As a manager I force myself to have Convo 2s regularly with those direct reports who like that mode of conversation so that when I need to I can have my (preferred mode) Convo 1. That way, they understand that I do care about them and I do support them, even in Convo 1 situations, because of the pattern of behavior.

        But some people lean toward my natural style so Convo 1 it is!

    8. DCompliance*

      Ugh- Your idea as a nightmare as an employee or the manager?

      I think the conversation is to point…the point being making yourself more approachable. If the manager was told to be more concise then, maybe, the conversation would be a problem.

  14. hbc*

    So, I see you initiating conversations, but how are you when people actually approach you? I’ve known a few people who are very extroverted and chatty but I’d feel uncomfortable interrupting them in their office. I think you want to work less on the former and more on the latter.

    I’d start by asking your boss what they see. That’s not always a clear sign because we’re often different interacting up versus down the ladder, but since this is a pervasive issue in your life, I’d be surprised if your boss hadn’t popped their head in and, say, been put off by you saying “What is it?” with a frown rather than “Hi, what’s up?” with a smile.

    You might also have to deploy some pretty artificial signals, like a literal green light at your desk/door showing you’re available for questions. And the most disarming and welcoming thing you could do is share with your reports that you know you seem unapproachable, you’re working on it, and they can give specific feedback to you or your boss so you can do better.

    1. Forrest*

      Yes, I think a really big thing is how quickly you adjust from, “in concentration, doing my thing” to “happy to see you, what can I help with”!

      Sometimes people write in with a “my colleagues keep interrupting me with IT questions/ because I sit next to the printer/ etc”, and the advice is to be less approachable by taking a second or two longer to come out of what you’re doing, frown slightly, look puzzled, and then say, “oh sorry, can I help you??”

      OP, how do your colleagues approach you? Do they send an IM, email to ask for a meeting, or knock and enter your office? Think about how that works, and whether you’re sending any micro-messages that can make people feel like that’s unwelcome. This doesn’t have to be bad or deliberate: if you do a lot of deep-concentration work, or even just tend to sink into whatever you’re doing and take a moment or two to adjust to “someone talking to me”, that’s not abnormal or bad! But it might be something to address directly: “if you come in and I’m concentrating on something, it might take me a moment, and I might look like I’m thrown by being interrupted. I just want to let you know that’s a me thing not a you thing and it’s fine! Don’t let it put you off if you need to ask me something!”

  15. t-vex*

    I’m an introvert too in a job that requires me to be friendly with people I really don’t know and may interact with only a couple times a year. I’ve found a big warm smile (with teeth!) goes a really long way in making you seem like a wam and caring person.

    1. Anonym*

      Same! I usually go for a cheerful, “Hey!” when people approach or IM. I like folks, but have to be a bit deliberate about this because I haaaaaaaate being interrupted when focusing (hello ADHD – periods of focus are hard to come by and interruptions are really disruptive, but it’s important in my job that people feel able to approach me). And the bonus of the quick, cheerful acknowledgement and greeting is that it takes about 1.5 seconds, rather than a sustained effort of small talk. And if I’m really in a pinch, I’ll hear them out on the topic and then suggest we schedule time later in the day or the next day to discuss, explaining the reason and that I want to give it more time than I have right now.

    2. meyer lemon*

      My advice for anyone who’s kind of naturally reserved and non-chipper is to use humour to show warmth. Forced bubbliness is quite painful for both the inflictor and the victim, but making a joke or two, particularly along with remembering details about the person and complimenting them on their work, will inject a lot of warmth into the interaction without feeling unnatural. (Disregard this note if you work in a humour-free office.)

  16. Becca*

    I have four direct reports, and I totally follow their lead when it comes to how much/little “small talk” they seem to need and want. I always start out 1:1s by asking how they’re doing, and two of them always answer with how their personal life is going (unless work is particularly stressful), one of them only ever answers with how they’re doing at work, and one flips back and forth depending on what’s stressing them out that week. I will ask follow up questions about their lives if they share something (“Oh, I’m doing well! It’s my dad’s birthday this weekend and we have the whole family getting together for it.” “Oh wow! How old is he turning? Are you guys going to a restaurant or having something at your parents house?” etc for 5 min, then “I hope you and your family have a great time, that will be so special for you all. Want to jump into our agenda?”). I don’t actually share that much info about myself, though if they ask me questions back, I’ll answer.

    I also am an extreme introvert who has gotten similar feedback in the past, and for me what helped was becoming more transparent about what I’m actually thinking about and how I actually feel about my team’s work and individual growth. Meaning, as Allison talked about, I let them know when I don’t have all the answers, I ask for their input, I give specific and consistent positive feedback, when giving critical/constructive feedback I make sure to give context about why it’s important and how it impacts the business, and when they have something personal going on (Covid for everyone, sick parents/family, pet troubles, apartment/landlord issues…whatever) I try to offer concrete and immediate support. (“Oh I’m so sorry to hear that, yes you can and should take the time to process and grieve. Can we talk through ways to shift some things around to give you the time you need?” or “That sounds so frustrating, and I imagine is taking some time to sort out. Is there anything going on at work or your workload keeping you from being able to deal with the situation at home?”) I also respect the things that are important to them in their lives — no judging if something actually sounds stressful or if it’s close enough to them to warrant support.

    Also, asking “What else can I help with?” alllll the time — instead of “anything else?” which is a yes/no question. You’ll get the most interesting answers, and learn so much about your team. And they’ll feel supported even if the answer is “nothing,” because they are being supported!

    1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

      “Anything else?” isn’t strictly a yes/no question. I noticed my spouse using that at the end of calls during WFH days last year, and it CAN be answered “No,” but if yes, it re-opens the conversation. Think of work conversations like a flowchart, where NO –> end conversation, but YES –> leads to further options.

      1. ecnaseener*

        I think what Becca meant is that when you’re asked a question whose answer *boils down to* either a yes or a no, it’s easy to just say no off the cuff. “What can I help with” presupposes that there *is* something, so you’re more inclined to figure out at least one thing to share rather than saying “nothing at all”

        1. AnotherLadyGrey*

          Yes, this! To me it feels similar to the difference between “Do you have any questions?” and “What questions do you have?” In the first case it’s often instinctive to just say no. A lot of people interpret it more like “You don’t have any questions, do you?” But in the second case, it pre-supposes that they *will* have questions, which can make it easier for someone to say “Actually yes, can you clarify X?” And if they don’t have any questions they can just say no.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      I think also “anything else” can sometimes come off kind of as “I’d like this conversation to be over now but I guess we can keep going if you’ve got more.”

      1. t-vex*

        My boss says “What else?” instead and it does the same thing without feeling dismissive

  17. Roja*

    I wonder if it’s less a conversation style issue and more about communication in general. Is your office door always, always closed? If someone texts or emails, do you get back to them in a timely manner? Are you always extremely busy to the point where people have a hard time getting a meeting with you? Or if someone has a quick question or something last-minute, are you reachable? If they text or email, do you send back those curt-sounding, one-word replies of “no,” “k,” “tomorrow,” etc? There’s a place for those obviously but if that’s the bulk of your communication that can feel very off-putting.

    I ask that because my boss is incredibly warm and kind, but sometimes can seem unapproachable because she’s usually, literally, unapproachable–very, very busy; sometimes doesn’t respond to communications at all and when she does it’s often only partially. Things like that can make employees feel like needing normal sign-offs/programming decisions/whatever is an imposition on your time. And that can be very frustrating.

    1. calonkat*

      Oh, this is a very good point! I’ve also had managers that I couldn’t seem to contact. They would never be available, and if I sent an email with 3 questions, they’d halfway answer the first like they couldn’t be bothered to read the entire email (and I was sending “I have 3 questions about the teapot order process, no preamble, no fuss, just what I needed because I was clearly bothering them with my mere presence.)

  18. Nea*

    If LW is feeling shame and self-loathing after conversations I’m wondering if others are picking up on it, even just as a vague sense of “LW does not want to talk with me” or “this is awkward – what did **I** do wrong?” (Never underestimate how quickly people are willing to assign themselves the blame when things go weird. Especially if they, too, have depression/are introverts/uncomfortable with small talk.)

    If small talk is uncomfortable, then avoid it! Nod silently when you pass as suggested upthread. Call a cheerful “Hello everyone!” or “Good morning!” when you come into the office, but keep walking so that no one needs to do more than respond to the call. When small talk dies off and starts getting awkward, just say, “Sorry, I’ve never been good at small talk. But I want you to know that if you need a deeper conversation, if something isn’t working for you or you have an idea or you need help – please, let me know right away.”

    As an employee, I’ve been frustrated – and sometimes annoyed – by the folks who want small talk. We’re at an office. Tell me what you want. Don’t take 10 minutes to greet me individually and ask about my weekend and tell me about yours and mention the weather – for the love of all you hold holy JUST ASK ME YOUR QUESTION!

    1. Anonym*

      Good point. People can often sense discomfort, but rarely have the info to understand what kind of discomfort it is. A manager’s discomfort with herself can easily read as discomfort with the person observing it. We all have some of that “it must be me!” tendency.

  19. thursday fresh*

    The best manager I ever had, I had ZERO smalltalk with. I had no idea about his family, his weekends etc. But, whenever I had a work problem he would help me through it and had my back. Whatever resources I needed, he made sure I got, so I could do *my* job better. He also didn’t get angry when I found errors in his work (at one point, the error I found cost him 6 months of work he’d already put into a project), just a “damn, I guess I have to redo that, thanks for pointing it out”, said sincerely.

    1. Ginger Baker*

      Same! My Very Favorite Boss at the very beginning paused and caught himself and asked about my weekend. But I’m not a big “talk about my personal life at work” person (with a few exceptions but most are folks I *don’t* work directly with that often and we have a clear mutual work-friend vibe) so once he picked up on that he does do some “how’s your mom [after a mom hospital thing that I had to take off work for]” but we generally don’t “chit-chat” and that works well for both of us. I do not need him to care about my weekend. What I DO NEED, and he is EXCELLENT AT, is his willingness to make time when I need clarifications from him, his clear and obvious (and vocal) respect for my work and skills, his support in getting me whatever I need to do my job well, and his immediate “who do I need to talk to to get you a raise” each and every time review time comes around. I know he has my back should I run into any issues at the office, and bonus, he’s an active with-actions supporter of a diverse workplace. I didn’t find out he had two dogs until four years into our working relationship and I don’t think he even realizes my sister (who he did meet once) lives with me, but zero of that matters. I followed him to this job from PreviousJob and would absolutely follow him again if he jumped ship with no hesitation.

  20. fish*

    Here’s a model for great management for everyone, even the quiet, awkward, and bad at small talk:

    One of the best managers I ever had was a quiet and frankly awkward guy. But he wasn’t unapproachable! Whenever we’d check in, he’d ask if there was anything I could help with, and if I needed anything from him. And then he’d follow through. That more than made up for the strained small talk and awkward conversations.

    As a manager myself now, I try to model myself on him. Thanks Brian!

  21. GreenDoor*

    The “unapproachable” label may not have anythng to do with how you initiate a conversation. When I hear the word I equate it with like “open-minded,” “fair-and-balanced,” “reasonable,” and “time-giving.” Think about things like ….
    * how you answer the phone. Is it and enthusiastic “Oh, hi Bob!” or is it, “What now, Bob??”
    * how you handle alternative ideas or pushback. Do you give thoughtful consideration or do you immediately shut it down without a second thought?
    * how you respond to special requests. Is it safe for employees to ask to leave work for an emergency or change their lunch time? Or do you act irritated and annoyed with those kinds of requests?
    * how you respond to feedback about the work or workplace? Can employees feel safe telling you they are overwhelmed…won’t make a deadline….have a conflict with a co-worker? Do you blow it off or do you show concern and do the follow-up?

    Approachable isn’t just about how YOU start a coversation, it’s also about how you responding in your words and body language when others try to initiate an interaction with you.

    1. Ace in the Hole*

      I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve had managers and coworkers who were great in conversations they initiated… but still felt totally unapproachable. They would get irritated by people coming to them with questions or problems, reply with curt one-word answers to messages, and/or vent frustration about a problem to the person bringing the problem to their attention.

      Approachable managers make it comfortable and easy for people to tell them things. Depending on the situation, that can look different. But good places to start are making sure your responses are not intimidating or brusque, frequently asking open-ended questions that invite people to bring up concerns, and responding to sensitive topics with compassion and thoughtfulness.

    2. ecnaseener*

      All good points. I would add that you don’t even need to seem irritated for this to be a problem – if you’re always neutral, unfortunately that can also come off as cold and unapproachable.

    3. GraceRN*

      These are fantastic points! I think that while small talk can help some, it’s not what approachability is all about. I’m naturally an introvert as well. But as a manager, I make it a habit and a deliberate point to always make sure employees know they can approach me. These seem to work well for me:
      – I tell them I know they will probably have questions about the Creative llama herding proposal, and they should ask me anytime
      – I might say: Yes I understand the Llama husbandry report is complicated, let’s work on it together. Pick a time that works for both of us and we’ll have a working meeting.
      – In a typical meeting, I will say and repeat again that anyone can chime in and everyone, please do so.
      – I tell them I don’t know everything, and on many topics they know more than me, and I’m interested to hear from them.
      – I ask: hey I know I said we need to accomplish XYZ but does that make sense to everyone? If something doesn’t make sense, please tell me.
      – I make it a habit to ask questions and invite employees to speak-up “Ok for the Llama racing project, what are we missing so far? Is there anything you thought of that we didn’t consider? Please chime in.”
      -If I say something incorrect and an employee corrects me, I thank them cheerfully and say I appreciate it. I do this both in public and in one-on-one meetings.
      – I don’t make small talk just to make small talk, but I am interested to know if there is anything going on with them that could impact their performance (e.g. family member being sick, child moving out, break-up with partner, planning wedding, etc). I pay attention to employees body language, facial expression, emotions and put out feelers accordingly to see if they need support from me.
      These are just some examples but the theme is employees need to feel I’m interested in their participation and contributions. A key is I have to do this consistently over time.

    4. Rez123*

      For me being approachable isn’t a introvert/extrovert or small talk or talk about personal stuff type thing. It’s a feeling based on reactions. My manager is the queen of talking and sharing and asking about personal stuff.

      However, she is not approachable. Her calendar is always full. Door is always closed because she is in a meeting. She does not respond to emails. When you do cathch her, you feel like you are an inconvinience and using her precious time. It’s the deep breat after I ask”do you have a minute?”. You just don’t want to approach her and being stressed and struggle by yourself is more appealing.

      She says all the right things “my door is always open”, “I’m here to help”, “let me know if we can develop the process” and I think she believes it herself, but to me it just soudns like she read a book taht says managers needs to say these things.

  22. DH*

    everything about this person’s letter screamed ‘social anxiety’ to me. i wish the LW luck

  23. Sue D. O'Nym*

    You could even add a little bit of “approachability factor” by using Alison’s 1st sample conversation, but at the end, instead of “Ok, that’s it then.”, change it to “Ok, that’s all my questions for now. Thanks for the updates.”

    1. calonkat*

      I think “ok, let me know if you need anything from me” might be the best way to end things. Lets people know you’re done, but still willing to support them if they need it.

      1. quill*

        Conversationally, it leaves the door open to encouraging them coming to talk to you about what needs doing even if you’re not spending much time talking to them about it!

  24. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

    I think also some level of consistency is important in how you respond to people. I had a supervisor who 75% of the time was fairly warm and responsive, but that other 25% of the time, asking a normal work question would get a snapped, cold, or irritated response. It meant that I was always a little bit nervous to approach them.

  25. Warm Weighty Wrists*

    I have never managed anyone, but I have found my managers to be warm and caring without getting into my personal life (I’m like medium private, so that’s my preference). It’s small things like Allison added to the second conversation that make me feel like they are asking themselves if I have everything I need, if anything is standing in the way of me doing my best work, if I might have too much work or be frustrated in some other way, etc. They don’t only care about my work product or utilization rate, they care about my overall work experience. Not coincidentally, taking an interest in my overall work experience leads to a better work product! It’s a lot more effective and frankly more sincere than asking about someone’s weekend when you don’t particularly care–assuming you do care about the work experience of the people you manage.

  26. Forty Years in the Hole*

    Captain Stubing>>>>>LW<<<<<Al Swearengen.
    Somewhere in between is your sweet spot.

    1. calonkat*

      I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or not that I got Captain Stubing right away but had to google Swearengen.

  27. Orange You Glad*

    I’m similar to you LW! I’m an extreme introvert dealing with depression and anxiety (especially social anxiety) but one thing I’ve learned about myself is I do much better 1) in smaller group situations and 2) when I have some control over the social interaction. Working from home has actually made me better at reaching out and connecting with coworkers since I have more control over when and how I interact with others.

    I have tried to make myself available to my direct reports, be supportive of them, take the time to teach them new things and coach them through issues they are having, and approach every conversation with positivity. A lot of my team members are self-sufficient but I initiated a weekly check-in meeting for the group so everyone gets face time with me, even if they don’t have issues or deliverables, and I always keep time in any meeting open for anyone to bring up anything that might be going on. I also made an effort to share a little more about myself with my team and coworkers. I’m still very private, but taking a few minutes to try to relate to someone on a personal level has helped me connect with them better. I feel like I have improved my professional relationships since I consciously made an effort to approach everyone this way.

    The flexibility to work from home has helped me significantly since I can save my energy for the conversations that need to happen and cut down on the small talk in the break room that really drains me. I know this isn’t an option for everyone, but I used to become standoffish when I was in the office all day every day because my social energy was quickly eaten up by situations outside my department/responsibility.

    1. Anonym*

      This! Someone please make my extrovert boss understand this as he frets about the optics of his (very introverted but highly competent and relationship oriented) team staying mostly remote.

  28. Rock Prof*

    Conversation 2 really strikes me as how I’ve trained myself to talk to students. If I go in asking only if they’ve finished things with no indication that there might be other things happening outside of their work (like, group projects dependent upon others, work, a global pandemic, etc.), I find they really don’t like to approach me when problems actually do come up. Students will just not turn in work or skip class instead of approaching me. When I make a point to be more like conversation 2, the students are much more likely to clue me in when things come up (academic or otherwise), and the work they do, because they know they have my support, is much better.
    Students and employees are clearly in very different roles, but I think a little empathy and real complements can go a long way to establishing a relationship where people know they can come to you when real issues arise.

  29. BlueBelle*

    There are a few things that make people really great leaders. Self-awareness- how do other people perceive you, active listening- how do other people like to receive communication (verbal or written), and empathy- how does what is happening affect this person, adaptability- understanding as a leader we have to change our style and preferences to meet the needs of our team and partners.
    I too am an introvert, I think before I speak- and process information internally. this can be perceived as being standoffish, low energy, and/or a slow decision maker. None of those things are true, it is just how I process information. Knowing that these behaviors can be perceived that way allows me to adjust to the expectations of those around me who may be more extroverted in their processing of information and decision making.
    Doing this allows my message, my leadership, my decisions to be received more easily by those who have a different style, allowing for more effective communication.
    My recommendation is to start with some communication style assessments. Learning not only your own style but learning how to recognize other styles.
    Good luck!

  30. Chc34*

    What makes me think a manager is approachable or unapproachable is the way they react if I have something to ask them. I had an old manager who, every time I knocked on her door, would react with a very impatient “What?” and answer my questions in a condescending tone that made it clear she thought I was wasting her time. My current manager, on the other hand, always reacts cheerfully to a request for help or a meeting to talk about something, with a “Sure!” or “Of course!” and never makes me feel that I’m bothering her.

  31. Flower necklace*

    I want to second that being a good manager doesn’t mean making great small talk. I have a wonderful manager who is warm and caring, but we only ever talk about work because she’s incredibly busy. Still, she always has a positive, upbeat attitude. She’s also open about supporting my department in any way she can, and she follows through with it.

    I actually get really nervous around authority figures (for my own personal reasons), but I find her very approachable.

  32. Momma Bear*

    It also depends on the audience sometimes. I was told many similar things even after trying to be more friendly. I changed jobs and I think I act the same….but am perceived very differently. Maybe look at what is considered “approachable” with your audience. Is it a specific person or people? Would it help to have short meetings with people? I have a coworker who walks around on Friday afternoons and either relays info or just says hi. I can be very friendly, but I loathe people who want to chat for 20 minutes when I’m on my way to the bathroom. Maybe doing a walkabout when you’re in a good headspace is a good way to lead the conversation.

  33. Gwen Soul*

    When you talking or writing an email smile, even if they can’t see or hear you, there is something that comes across, even when writing. If you are writing and realize the it feels weird to smile then your tone is probably off (of course there are times for this!)

  34. Betty*

    When I am really thinking hard and concentrating on what someone is saying, I furrow my brow pretty intensely, to the point that it begins to look angry. I’ve learned that warning people that my “listening face” can read as “murderous rage” can actually be helpful (I usually throw in a jokey “if you’re ever unsure, as long as I’m unarmed I’m just really interested, not enraged”). And of course, trying to consciously relax my face and make objectively pleasant expressions, and to interject things like “wow, that’s a great point” to make the “I’m so interested” explanation clearer.

    1. Invisible Fish*

      My poor students get to suffer with my “reading” face – emails, assignments, whatever. Whatever my face is doing when I’m reading, it really worries them. A lot!

  35. Invisible Fish*

    As someone who HATES small talk, let me just assure you there are people on your team who really adore you because you handle business instead of bringing up foolishness. Following through on things, doing what you say you’ll do, and treating people with kindness and consideration make you *truly* approachable, as opposed to someone who can act chatty in the break room.

    1. sagc*

      None of that seems to be what this letter is about? This is, presumably, about being approachable as a manager, and I don’t see how making the adjustments Alison suggests would be “bringing up foolishness”.

      Also, cool way to think about people making small talk with you!

      1. nonbinary writer*

        If anyone speaks to me about anything other than pivot tables, they are foolish and I should not have to put up with their frivolous nonsense!!! /s

      2. Invisible Fish*

        I know, right? I detest small talk- serves no purpose but to waste time! (Alison’s second script had no foolishness or small talk, btw- it was warm and pleasant, but work focused – and I wasn’t referencing that. Instead, I was specifically referencing how some folks think that chit chat is required in a work relationship, which it is not. I actually was hoping the LW would see there are plenty of us in the world who don’t see chit chat as a way to connect with others . . . )

  36. Absurda*

    Personally, as an introvert, I think small talk was invented by the devil. I HATE making small talk with strangers but once I get to know a person and their interests it gets easier. Asking about vacations and weekends is usually a good, low energy conversational gambit (so is the weather, btw).

    For more social small talk I’ve been able to connect with people over TV shows, movies, hobbies, etc. I’ve had one coworker I talked with about ghost hunting and star wars and another coworker and I talked about travel. My manager and I talk a lot about Marvel movies/tv shows and other shows we have in common. I attend a standing call where talk often turns to sports (I just listen since I don’t follow sports). You really don’t have to get too deeply into personal stuff if you don’t want to.

    A last thing to consider with coworkers is ending work emails or conversations with something like “let me know if you have any questions or need anything from me”. This may seem like meaningless filler, but it does signal your openness to helping them if they need it.

  37. Anonymous Koala*

    It may also help to think of your job as a manager a little differently. When I managed people, my job was to make their jobs easier by making sure they had the resources they needed to be successful. Thinking of it as a job ‘in service’ to the people I managed helped remind me to follow up with them about resources they needed, ways I could be helpful, doors I could open, etc. Maybe there’s a way you can frame your interactions with people or your job generally that will help remind you to do some of these things without them feeling forced.
    Also, since you’re a new manager, I think you can ask your boss for help. She may be able to give you specific examples and coaching about this.

  38. Seriously?*

    I have to wonder if the OP is a woman, particularly a woman of color. As a woman of color, I often receive similar feedback in certain (but not all) white spaces.

    It is not uncommon for women, and especially women of color, in managerial roles to receive this type of feedback — that they are unapproachable, not “nice enough” or even “intimidating” when their personalities and behavior would not receive that same feedback if they were a white man.

    Anyone who is a woman, especially a woman of color, who receives this type of feedback should look at the book “The Likeability Trap” for more support. Just as much as OP should be honestly evaluating what they can do to improve in this area, they should also be looking at whether there are outside factors affecting this perception.

    1. Seriously? Again*

      Perfect example: all the commenters on here telling OP to smile more or how to smile.

      Really folks?

      1. ThatGirl*

        We don’t know the OP; I can assume most people who gave that advice do NOT walk around telling people to smile more. I certainly don’t. But it’s 100% true that facial expressions can go a long way toward making someone seem approachable. And that was the advice that was asked for.

  39. SK*

    LW, I just want to say that I have been where you’ve been. I am naturally quiet. I was also relentlessly bullied and ostracized in my youth, so I didn’t form social skills right away. I would get a lot of people gossiping behind my back that I was “unfriendly” and “stuck up.” This happened from childhood through adulthood. Yes, it would bother me to learn that people thought this way about me. Then I realized they formed their opinions based on nothing. They really never interacted with me. I honestly feel that when people say someone is “unapproachable” they just saying you’re not giving them attention (and they think that they deserve your attention). I wish we lived in a less judgmental world. I hope you know there is nothing wrong with you.

  40. Trisha*

    You may also want to focus on your body language. I once had a manager who would stare unblinkingly at you while having her arms straight down at her sides (even when sitting). It was unnerving and if I were using a word to describe her to her boss it would have been “unapproachable”. Every time I brought up an issue it was “What is your plan. What are you going to do?” And there were times when I had no idea – she was the boss, much of it was her decision or required her input and it felt like I was on my own so yeah – unapproachable because I never felt like she was supportive or helpful.

    I went on leave for a few months to deal with a personal issue and the woman who backfilled for me was very unapproachable. She was super quiet, kept the office door closed, looked at her phone constantly, would look at my staff with a deer in the headlights look anytime they asked her anything, and anytime they asked to meet one on one, it was always “it will have to be later – at this super inconvenient time – because reasons!” when they were very familiar with my schedule/her schedule (back in the day where meetings meant you left your office – so she was there at her computer, just couldn’t/wouldn’t make them a priority). And then when they did talk to her, it was like she’d never met them before – no warmth, no connection, no knowledge of what they were talking about. Questions were responded to with “what do you want me to do?”

    Personally, I’d make sure that you’re being proactive in talking with the people you manage – make sure that you’re accessible – that can frequently help with people feeling like you’re approachable because they know they can talk to you, flag things to you and ask for input and not get turned down / away.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Second this. I’m an arm-crosser with stony RBF and I’ve scared a lot of interns unnecessarily because of it.

      1. A Person*

        Oh the arm crossing is a great point! I had to do a management training on difficult conversations once where they videoed it and it was both awful and super useful for pointing things like this out. I go out of my way to avoid crossed arms in the workplace.

  41. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Positive feedback is SO IMPORTANT. Right now I work for someone who wouldn’t say “good job!” if I handed her the Holy Grail on a platter surrounded by chocolate. I will go a long way for someone who says “thank you for doing that” even if it’s my job, or “great!” when I put out the current fire and we can move on to the next one.

    If you’re perceived as unapproachable, and someone STILL tells you something about their personal life, it might be because it’s important to them. Consider that it may have taken an act of bravery for them to tell you, and react appropriately. I had a cat die earlier this month and it’s a big deal to me, and I was pretty demoralized when I told my team and nobody took the time to say “I’m sorry.”

  42. AL*

    I’ve also had this come up from my leadership. I would be interested to see if your direct reports find you not approachable. I found that my team really felt I go to bat for them, listen, have their best interests, help move the team forward, give positive feedback, etc. This led to them bringing up concerns, seeking me out, asking for help, and so on.

    It was either colleagues or people in leadership (mainly people I don’t work closely with on a day-to-day basis) that had this perception. I don’t have a great strategy to pass along in this instance, but I wanted to bring up that this might not be coming from your reports at all.

    1. OP*

      I’m not sure. I assumed it was coming from direct reports, but it could be coming from other managers. I’m realizing that I need to go back to my boss and have another conversation with her to suss out what exactly is meant by “unapproachable.” I will add this talking point to my notes for that meeting, thank you for pointing it out to me.

  43. grateful*

    Alison, these sample conversations are SO helpful (and the explanation after them, too)!! I’m not a manager, but this is valuable advice for interacting with teammates too, and I appreciate it. I really identify with the OP (introvert, anxious, depressed) and have struggled with developing good working relationships with peers. This is great!

  44. _ID_*

    I have a few thoughts that might help:

    -Does your company do any kind of personality test like StrengthsFinder or Myers-Briggs? The first time I took Myers-Briggs was a life changer for me; as an off the chart Extrovert, I confess that I mistook some Introverts for jerks. The personality tests might help you understand your team, help them understand you, and most importantly, understand that “different is not bad”.

    -Ask people about their family if appropriate. It’s the rare person sho doesn’t light up when asked about their kids! Also, if someone has parents who are sick, follow up and ask how they are. This goes a long way.

    -Are you a pet person? If so, put up a picture or two of River or Miss Meow in your office. Fellow pet lovers will have an easy topic to discuss with you!

    -Recognition and thanks are always welcome. Make sure you spread it around.

    -Do some volunteer work and practice those people skills. As someone said above, get out of your own head and focus on others. Your employees want to know that you’re human!

    Good luck!

    1. mf*

      I’m an introvert and a recovering shy/awkward person who regularly gets mistaken for an extrovert, and you’ve basically outlined my entire social strategy: figure out what the other person cares about (their kids, their pet, their hobby), and ask about it with genuine interest. Then listen carefully and remember what was said so I can ask about it later.

  45. Fiddlesticks*

    Convo #1 is a perfect email back-and-forth. No wasted words, everything essential is included, direction is given. I personally don’t see anything cold or off-putting in the exchange.
    Convo #2 is a perfect in-person conversation. Conveys all of the above, plus human interest and concern is also provided. And it’s still pretty short and sweet.

    I myself prefer the conciseness and brevity of Convo #1, which is one reason I like to do as much communication as possible through email instead of meetings or even one-on-one conversations. If I have a problem, I’ll tell my boss – I don’t need to him to quiz me or try to draw me out about my feelings when I haven’t indicated that anything is wrong.

    Like the LW, I am also a true-blue introvert who has been accused all my life of being “stuck up” and “aloof”….nooo, I’m just exhausted by the constant talking (small and large), and “the boss/my coworkers care about me!” hand-holding required in the normal office environment. It’s THE reason that when I became a manager 20 years ago I very quickly decided it was not for me. I’ve never regretted that decision. If LW decides the same, they should not feel that there is anything wrong with them, either!

  46. Twofishie*

    Some of the most supportive managers I’ve had, I’ve known almost nothing about their lives outside of work! We didn’t do much small talk but we did connect on work issues and it was pretty amazing.
    I don’t know if this is possible for you but try to look ahead in your direct reports work flow and look for bottlenecks and trouble spots. It can take some extra time to cross reference the data of who’s working with who, who’s taking maternity leave, who’s got a giant project and will be slow to reply, who has to work with that one guy who makes everything 10x harder, but when you can see those problems on the horizon (or that they are happening right now) you can reach out to your people and offer concrete support as well as offering your steady faith in them to get the job done and that means a lot.
    Having a manager say “I know this isn’t ideal but you’ve got this and I’ll support you however you need to make this happen” goes a long way towards making someone feel like they can approach you and ask for help.
    Scheduling quick check-ins (I’d ask your boss for guidance on how often) to make sure your people are getting what they need is another way to build rapport around work. Even if you can’t get them exactly what they want, listening and going to bat for them means so much.

    The other thing I’ve seen make a big difference is when managers pay attention to what their employees need outside of work. My best friend has breathing problems and as a recent thank you for a big project, her manager sent her two really nice air purifiers (one is smaller, for traveling with once covid is less of an issue but right now it’s great for her home office) and it’s improved her quality of life and her manager has shown care in a concrete way. You’ll need to start little files on your people to see keep tabs on what’s going on with them if you go this route, but it can help build rapport as well.

    The idea behind all of this is to reach out to your people and listen. Building that habit into your relationships with them will take time and effort (and you may make mistakes so please don’t let your depression and anxiety convince you to stop reaching out when that happens!) but it will be worth it.

  47. Dust Bunny*

    My department is four introverts, at least two of whom have been described in the past as “prickly”, but we all have our Work Characters. We only need them occasionally so it’s not tiring, but it’s good to have a “bubbly” (relatively speaking) persona to put on when needed.

    One thing we do is that we occasionally (very occasionally) share something especially interesting/bizarre/hilarious that we find in the collections (we’re a research library). The amazing picture of what is now downtown Big City when it was a few buildings scattered among trees. The testy handwritten note in the margin of some meeting minutes from 1948 about how Famous Local Doctor always hogged the discussion time. That kind of thing–thirty seconds of sharing something fun.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      And if you’re thinking, “I don’t want to be fake”, it’s not fake–it’s a job skill. Being approachable is a job skill.

  48. WantonSeedStitch*

    I feel like Alison’s advice is spot-on here. You don’t have to phrase things exactly like she does, but I feel like some of the points are huge:

    1) Positive, specific feedback: especially important for your direct reports, as it helps them to do their jobs better.
    2) Acknowledgement of and appreciation for the time and effort that people are putting in. Even if it’s a requirement of their job, when someone is doing something that’s a heavy lift, let them know that you value it.
    3) Asking about any problems, either existing or potential, is just good practice. When you don’t ask about them, people may feel like you don’t want to hear about them, and won’t volunteer the information (this is a big negative consequence of being perceived as unapproachable). If you ask and they tell you, you can take steps to ensure good results. It’s important that you have an approach of “I want to help” with this, rather than expressing exasperation or annoyance. Otherwise, you have employees trying to hide problems or mistakes, scrambling to fix them in ways that might not work because they don’t want to bother you.

  49. TootsNYC*

    I have an unapproachable boss. It’s not about small talk or socializing.

    It’s about the feeling that anything I ever bring to her will result in being criticized.
    I have questions about what’s the best way to do something, but asking them will reveal that I haven’t gotten that answer 2 months ago, so I don’t want to look weak in front of her. (Meanwhile, the reason I didn’t get that answer 2 months ago is that she’s unapproachable and I dread talking to her.)

    That she is always mildly annoyed if I don’t do things perfectly–but I don’t know how she define “perfect.”

    It’s the impression that she wants this conversation to be over in a VERY short time.

    It’s the fact that we only ever speak if there’s a highly specific reason to; she needs me to do something, she needs specific information.

    I never feel like she genuinely wants to understand how I’m doing my job.

    She doesn’t feel like an ally.

    1. TootsNYC*

      To expand: sometimes I think she’d feel more approachable if I had a regular meeting with her, instead of only meeting with her in order to discuss highly specific stuff (or bad things). Then I might be able to build a relationship that would make me feel safe bringing her things that I SHOULD bring her.

      It doesn’t feel safe to talk to her.
      I hesitate to say “hey, you should know about this thing that might happen,” because she’ll act like I’m in the wrong for not having prevented it–meanwhile it hasn’t happened.

      I brace myself and overthink it before I go to her and say, “this thing happened that you need to know about, since you’re the department head.”
      Also–the way she would act when I brought her this information would make me feel like I’d interrupted her, not that I was a valued colleague whose info she was glad of.

      I wouldn’t want to answer the question “what’s the hardest part of your job right now?” because I wouldn’t trust that it won’t be held against me.

      I truly don’t need to chat weekends with her, but she’s not approachable because it doesn’t feel like I’ll have a collegial interaction.

      She’s also very busy, and so there are so few opportunities for us to interact. We’re not putting anything “into the goodwill bank.”

      The other boss I’ve had that I think of as unapproachable was similarly critical. And I’d think it was me, but I saw some similar things with other colleagues in both situations.

    2. mf*

      I had a boss *exactly* like this. Even when there wasn’t an objective measure of “perfect,” if I didn’t do a task exactly the way he would’ve done it, then I didn’t do it. And every time I approached him with a question, he seemed mildly annoyed, like I was bothering him.

      So I started only asking questions when it was absolutely necessary and I made sure to get the hell out of his office as quickly as I could.

      I really disliked working for him and I felt on edge around him all the time. Ironically, he gave me great reviews. I suspect it was because I was self-sufficient and rarely came running to him for help.

  50. Observer*

    OP, there is a common thread here that you should be paying careful attention to. That is, everyone here is talking about BEHAVIOR. This is not about “personality” or “type”. It’s about the things you do and say (and how you so and say those things).

    If you are reading all of this and thinking “OK, but I’m not sure how to turn this into a plan that applies across the board to my situation”, that’s not uncommon. This is the kind of thing that a good coach can help you with.

    1. Wisteria*

      It’s a little facile to say this is about behaviors rather than personality or type. Swimming is a behavior. Some people have biological characteristics that make them better from the outset, some people practice and practice and set world records, some people will never set a record regardless of how much they practice, some people have disabilities that preclude swimming. Soft skills are no different. “Type” and “personality” are as impactful as arm length and lung capacity. Everybody can probably improve a little over where they are right now, but most people are not going to be the Michael Phelps of approachability.

      1. James*

        Even if I agree with your premise (I do not), there’s still value in viewing this as behavior rather than personality or type. You can change behavior more quickly than you can change personality, and how others interpret your personality (which is the real issue here) is based on your behavior (because that’s all they can see). Further, focusing on behavior provides actionable conclusions. If I ask you for swimming advice and you say “Have the limb proportions of Michael Phelps” I’m probably not going to be as happy with the advice as I would be if you gave me tips on how to move my arms, hold my body, and coordinate breathing with strokes. I can do the latter things; I can’t do the former.

        1. Wisteria*

          Look, no analogy is perfect.

          Type & Personality : Ease and Success at Changing Behavior :: Arm Length : Ease and Success at Increase Swimming Speed

          It is as facile to say “Everyone here is talking about SWIMMING SPEED. This is not about “arm length” or “lung capacity” ” as it is to say, “Everyone here is talking about BEHAVIOR. This is not about “personality” or “type”.” You can practice smiling and practice fluffing up your conversation just like you can practice how you move your arms and how you coordinate your breathing, but your “personality” and “type” will impact how easily and successfully you implement that fluffing and the over change your approachability. BEHAVIOR is not separable from “personality” or “type”.

          1. James*

            “BEHAVIOR is not separable from “personality” or “type”.

            It’s related but different. Again, you can’t change personality or type, not easily anyway. Behavior is something you can change.

            Check out “Manager Tools” sometime. They discuss what they call teachable equivalents. You can’t teach someone to be friendly and care about their people; you can, however, teach them to set aside time each week to talk to their reports about whatever the report wants to talk about, and to allow the report to discuss their kids’ soccer game if they wish (the reasons why are also extensively explored). So I’m hardly the only one who is taking this stance.

            Another way to look at it: Closed vs Growth mindsets. A focus on personality or type creates a closed mindset. You can’t change your personality, not without years of effort and probably a therapist to assist you. A focus on behavior fosters a growth mindset. It’s something you can actually do.

      2. mf*

        Yes, but nobody is suggesting the OP needs to be the Michael Phelps of Manager Approachability. She doesn’t need to be the absolute best at this skill–she just needs to improve a little. And since behavior is a thing she can control, that means she has the power to work towards getting better, even if she’s not winning any gold medals in Social Skills & Approachability, so to speak.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        OP doesn’t have to start winning medals in approachability. Just getting in the pool and learning a few strokes would probably be sufficient for people to notice a change.

      4. Observer*

        but most people are not going to be the Michael Phelps of approachability.

        Which is totally not relevant to the discussion. The OP does not need to be a gold medalist at approachability. They simply need to ADEQUATE. That’s a bar that anyone with the capacities the OP has can reach. Because that IS about behavior, not personality.

    2. OP*

      I like the idea of seeing this as about behaviour rather than personality, even if that’s more about my perception than any concrete. Believing it’s my personality was making me second-guess whether I should even have this job, seeing it as behaviour makes it feel infinitely more manageable. Thank you.

  51. Purple Cat*

    One thing that I am totally guilty of that feeds into similar feedback of being “unapproachable” is 1) being overscheduled in meetings and then 2) when I’m at my desk, it’s head down, headphones on and focused.

    Try to get additional information on who this feedback is coming from. If it’s your direct reports, make sure you have standing 1:1 that you don’t cancel. Really “hear” their concerns and help clear roadblocks. And offer them support and praise whenever you can.

    If it’s other peers in the organization, try to gauge if you come across as “too busy” all the time. It’s not really about making small talk, it’s about letting people feel heard.

  52. lazuli*

    Scheduled weekly/every-other-weekly one on ones (that I do my absolute best to NEVER cancel and only rarely move in terms of time) really helps me with this. I specifically tell my employees that one of the reasons I have them is so that I always have set time on my schedule where they can talk to me. I also really prioritize responding to their emails (except in those cases where it’s a group email and it’ll probably get figured out without me if I leave it for a few hours, and I want them to learn those problem-solving skills). I also try to over-communicate telling them when I’m not available (doctor’s appointments, huge other priorities, etc.) so that they’ll know I’m not just ignoring them.

    The weekly meetings really help manage my own anxiety, too, because I know they’re coming!

  53. Casey*

    For what it’s worth, my boss is very matter-of-fact, speaks softly, and is generally introverted over bubbly. He reads as approachable to me for a few reasons— I don’t want to ignore that men are generally held to lower standards here, but I thought it might be helpful to share the options he uses.

    1) weekly check-ins where he has us set the agenda — this helps smooth over any awkward small talk because he’s able to nod and say “alright, sounds like that’s covered, what’s next on your list?” to move the convo along. The smile-and-nod approach seems to be enough to make these check-ins feel like a helpful forum.

    2) he’s really good at sharing our team’s, and his own, struggles and successes in a group format. Like “Hey, just a heads up that Ron and Ginny both saw delays getting items shipped out last week, so consider adding a couple days lead time for that”, or “I wanted to thank Hermione for catching a bug in our code last week, it definitely had me stumped! On that note, reminder to update to the latest version.”

    3) He also uses written communication to deploy the small talk (like “have a good weekend, all” as his Friday email signoff, or he’ll send me “hope your customer meeting went well, let me know if you’d like to debrief” over Teams). It takes some of the pressure off in person social interaction, but makes me feel like he’s proactive and warm, if not overly social.

  54. Red Swedish Fish*

    This could also be your facial expressions and body language when you approach people. My husband has to work on this daily, he had no idea that he makes a horrible face when confronted by someone with a very high pitched voice. It has more to do with his hearing and how his hearing aids adapt to high pitches but to people he talks to they perceive that he doesn’t like them or thinks he is superior to them.

  55. OP*

    A big thank you to Alison for taking the time to answer my question, and to every commenter who is offering further advice. I’m at work and have been unable to do more than briefly skim the first few comments but will take time this evening to go through them all and reply to as many questions as possible.

    I really appreciate everything I’m reading so far, especially advice to take notes about people (I do have memory issues), and to be aware of my demeanor when I’m approached. Those comments made me realize that it often takes me a moment to pull away from what I’m doing and put my full focus on someone – I do the “head down” thing. I also tune out quickly or return to my work when group conversations turn to non work topics. I do go out of my way to offer help and support, but could give more compliments and positive feedback. We’ve been wearing masks since I started managing, so sadly nobody can tell that I’m smiling, often! I try to show that in my tone and by exaggerating my smile-induced eye crinkles (if that makes sense).

    Thanks again to Alison and all the commenters.

    1. Goldenrod*

      OP, I love that you are even asking the question. To me, that means you will definitely be able to overcome this.

      In my experience, the unapproachable bosses I’ve had also were very hierarchical and had ZERO interest in improving this in themselves, or even in seeing it as a problem.

      Just the fact that you care and that you are trying is huge. I think you are going to do really great with this. :)

    2. ecnaseener*

      The “smile-induced eye crinkles” have served my sister well as a teacher during covid :)

    3. Actual Vampire*

      Ooh, I bet the zoning out of group conversations is a big part of the issue, especially if these are conversations with your reports. It’s important to remember that now that you’re the boss, you’re going to be a VIP in every social situation with your team, kind of like the President or the Queen. If someone is talking about something important to them and you’re not paying attention, they’re going to notice and care a lot more than if Fergus from Accounting isn’t paying attention. So if you really need to get back to work, you might want to verbally excuse yourself from the conversation and/or move to a different location (if possible).

  56. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    OP, I really have to second Alison’s comments on positive feedback. Obviously you don’t want to gush over every little thing, but it’s really not very motivating to only hear about problems and never hear about work that is good. Also, in the end, when an employee needs you to have their back, make sure you protect/stand up for them. Once you get a reputation for standing up for your people, others will trust you.

    Alison, I don’t know what makes you think that you cannot write fiction! I am riveted … I want to know all about the boysenberry report and the dragon fruit analysis! It sounds like a real breakthrough in rare fruits! Why didn’t they focus on papayas? I’m hooked!!!! :)

  57. agnes*

    What I love so much about this website is the actual examples Alison gives to accompany her excellent advice. They have helped me so much on how to frame difficult conversations. This is another great example.

  58. James*

    One trick I’ve found works: Keep snacks on your desk. I have a plastic barrel of pretzels on mine. I keep it where it’s obviously intended for other people to eat–on the other side of my monitor, in fact. This encourages people to pop in and chat, and encourages casual conversation. It’s a little thing, but those little things add up.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Ha! You don’t have to be approachable if your candy bowl is tempting enough to make people approach!

      (I jest – I get what you mean about inviting conversation too.)

      1. James*

        That’s why I switched to pretzels–no one but me ate the candy, and I don’t need it! :D

        The pretzels are also bait. Folks come in to eat them, and it’s natural to say “Oh, hey, while you’re hear, did you ever call Jake about that survey?” I’m not hunting you down–you came into my office, after all! That’s just natural conversation. It’s a little manipulative, sure, but we all have little tricks like that we use; it’s part of the culture. One guy positioned himself between me and the coffee pot for that reason.

    2. mf*

      This is actually kind of an amazing idea. I used to be an admin and I always kept a candy jar on my desk. When a new person stopped by my desk, I would offer them a piece of candy. Gives them an excuse to come back, so I build rapport with them and ask simple relationship-building questions: “So what’s new? How are you?”

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      I really like that because I feel like even if people don’t actually take snacks, just having them there as a thing that is clearly For Other People to Partake In puts off a kind of approachable signal. Like it’s letting people know they’re not bothering you if they come to you office.

      Though not sure it would work for me personally to sit by a snack bowl all day haha. Maybe just like a bowl of mints. Actually I think I did have a manager who kept a bowl of mints on her desk! (Individually wrapped of course, the lifesaver kind)

      1. Observer*

        I really like that because I feel like even if people don’t actually take snacks, just having them there as a thing that is clearly For Other People to Partake In puts off a kind of approachable signal. Like it’s letting people know they’re not bothering you if they come to you office.

        That’s a really good point.

  59. Sharon*

    I’ve had difficulties with this myself. I tend to be very to the point and also work in a culture that is somewhat more sensitive to not rocking the boat than the one I grew up in. After some feedback, I did some reading on how to improve and implemented a few changes and was absolutely floored to find out what a difference it makes to a lot of people to start an email or conversation with a “Hope you are well” or “Might I get your opinion on XYZ?” or to end with “Have a great weekend!” Turns out that other people think it’s rude to omit language I view as neutral/unnecessary/even distracting. Who knew?

    I guess my message is that big changes may not be needed, because small changes can be very meaningful when it comes to relationships.

    1. gyrfalcon17*

      I got feedback from my manager when we started working from home due to Covid and meeting on Teams a lot that I seemed disengaged in group meetings.

      I *finally* (after several months of thinking I was doing better and then discovering that she thought I was still seeming just as disengaged) extracted from her super-specific things to do:

      1. Look directly at the camera all the time.
      2. Nod periodically while people are talking to show I’m absorbing what they’re saying.
      3. Contribute verbally.

      So now I look steadfastly at the camera, nod my head frequently (at what feel like random moments to me, because it feels so unnatural), and *always* think of something to say or ask in discussions, even if I think everyone else has it well covered already.

      All little things (and they seem meaningless to me), but my boss is super pleased by them and thinks I’m doing great at being engaged.

      1. Observer*

        and *always* think of something to say or ask in discussions, even if I think everyone else has it well covered already

        You can actually say that, you know. “Joan and John have really covered all the bases. Thanks.” Would go over really well I suspect. Using the names of specific people shows that you actually were paying attention rather than just saying this to get out of the conversation.

  60. PixieM*

    One of the best managers I’ve had was not the most approachable or warm. But she had many other great qualities! She was a straight-shooter who would TELL me if there was a problem so I could fix it (and gave actionable feedback). She had my back during difficult situations and helped me advocate for what I needed. She was legit interested in what I had to say and who I was as a person, both in and out of work. She was exactly the manager I needed at that time even if it took me a while to warm up to her.

    Maybe you’re doing better than you think.

    1. OP*

      I wonder if that could be true. Reviewing some of the comments about other unapproachable managers, I’m certain I’m not exhibiting some of those more problematic behaviours. I can be really hard on myself when I’m going through a period where my mental health isn’t as strong as usual, as is the case right now.

    2. PT*

      I was thinking this too. I am naturally cool and reserved and as a manager, I was actually pretty approachable. I managed a lot of young people and ended up mentoring a lot of them, got heads up on things before they became problems, things like that that proved that I was approachable. I was good at my job and generally well-liked.

      But I have run into a few people who thought everyone should Perform Appropriate Female Behaviors and would get into it, policing my facial expressions when I had a headache or if I didn’t always talk! with! exclamation! points! or generally effuse pep and perk and love and nurturing everywhere. And they’d always be on my case with the “People think…” and “People are saying…” when really they just wanted me to do a better job at being giggly and girly because that’s what made their ego feel better.

  61. Marie*

    AMA really nailed it here.

    LW I was you only a few years ago. This will de-anon me, but it was bad enough that someone who is now a friend actually had me in their phone as “the aloof one”. My last manager review one of the pieces of feedback I received was “I feel comfortable bringing anything to you.” so I think I’ve got approachable sorted now.

    Embracing my curiosity in one on ones and team meetings and a lot of transparency were the two things that seemed to help. For years I started every single one on one with “what’s on your mind?” I know other folks have a more formal set of questions they always use, but one really open ended question helped set the tone I wanted. I was curious about what was up with them, only a couple talk about their personal lives at all, but always starting what they’re thinking about really drove home that their thoughts mattered.

    The other thing that has really helped is I try with every ounce of my being to not get visibly upset when things go sideways. If a report comes to me with a mistake, either theirs or someone else’s, I don’t get mad and try not to get visibly frustrated. Instead I listen and then work with them to fix whatever happened. If reprimands are necessary I save them for when the situation is less charged. Multiple people at work have told me I’m consistently a source of calm in chaos. I’m not in my personal life, I’m the source of chaos there. But at work the job of a manager is to be the backbone of the team, so I try to be calm and of service to the folks I manage.

    There’s downsides to being approachable. I get ALL the gossip, most of the complaints about the behavior of others, and some of the code of conduct violations. Not just for my team, but for others. I’d really love to have a couple days where that wasn’t the case, but the pandemic has made everyone a bit more on edge.

  62. Parcae*

    My current manager (who I adore) is a lot like OP by nature, I think. She’s not naturally chatty and under stress reverts to a “just the facts” communication style. Her strengths as a boss include very clear expectations, a willingness to pitch in, and a strong sense of personal accountability (i.e., she always follows through on what she says she’s going to do.)

    This might sound weird, but it’s pretty clear to me that someone along the way told her she comes off as unapproachable, and she deliberately uses some of Alison’s techniques to help. Like, I can sense when she gets to the parts of the conversational checklist reading “give Parcae some positive feedback” and “make sympathetic noises about difficult project A.” That might sound awkward but… it works! I love positive feedback and it always comes off as sincere– she’s not making stuff up to placate me.

    One thing that REALLY helps in my manager’s case is blocking off regular one-on-one time. (We sometimes reschedule our one-on-ones, but never cancel them. They’re high priority even during busy stretches.) She’s at her approachable best when there are no interruptions and she’s had time to prepare for the conversation.

  63. Esmerelda*

    I love Alison’s advice here and from an employee perspective, I second all of it! I have a manager who I often feel is aloof and unapproachable, and I feel that way even after she asks about my weekend or whatnot! A lot of it has to do with the dialogue examples Alison gave: when my boss and I talk about work, she is always the 1st example of dialogue that Alison gave. If I tell my boss about a work problem I’m having, she often just says “ok.” I don’t always know what to do with that response. I’m not saying this to rip on my boss or OP at all – I do want to acknowledge that being engaged at work is hard; I’m an introvert myself and I think maybe this is one of those things where practice makes perfect – I only want to say that if my manager gave me positive feedback, empathy, and engagement, it would seriously mean soo much to me! OP, please don’t beat yourself up! Keep trying.

    1. Esmerelda*

      P.S. Forgot to say – many props to you, OP for asking this question and thinking about how to be seen as more approachable in the first place! I don’t think that a truly aloof person would care if someone called them aloof, so I don’t think you’re as aloof as you might think.

  64. MCMonkeyBean*

    I think in particular this line is key:
    “If you ever do need me to [XXX], let me know.”

    Then you are literally telling people that they can approach you! Then of course, what happens if they *do* approach you is really important. If you tell someone then can come to you with a question and then when they do you are very curt it might leave them feeling like you didn’t really mean it.

  65. Not again*

    Many people have been focusing on conversations. But it may also be how you react when they approach.
    Employee “Hey boss, are you busy?”
    Boss gives an uninterested look “What?”
    or Boss sighs loudly, “What?”
    or Boss finishes typing his paragraph before acknowledging employee.
    I’ve dealt with all of those and trust me, I bother them as little as possible.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Yes, this is how I interpret “unapproachable.” To me, it’s not about conversation or small talk. It’s about how the manager reacts when you come to them for something. I once had a manager would couldn’t keep her facial expressions in check to save her life. If she felt you were interrupting with a ridiculous question (or whatever), you knew it. She’d have a grimace on her face, or roll her eyes, or just give an exasperated sigh. I’ve also had a manager who would keep his door closed all the time, regardless of whether he was on a call or just doing some mundane task or just surfing the ‘net aimlessly. He came out to use the bathroom, get coffee/lunch, or ask questions and that’s about it. I would deem both of these people as unapproachable, even though they sometimes engaged in small talk in the kitchen or in meetings.

  66. Greige*

    “(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.)”
    Yes, I’m one of those people. I get squirmy when my boss spends the first 10+ minutes of our check-in telling me all about his morning because he thinks that’s necessary to open a conversation or develop rapport or whatever. And I’m just hoping to get through the agenda, because I need answers on actual work questions, and his time is really limited.

    1. TimeTravlR*

      Chop chop, people! We have things to do! LOL
      I’m with you! Keep the train moving!

  67. TimeTravlR*

    Living and working in the South (at the time), I was given similar feedback. In my case, what people didn’t seem to grasp is that I was there every day but many of those who needed my time were only there for short windows. So I was trying to plow through as much as I could with those people in that small window of time. So I learned to start out by asking about “Mama and ’em” and then segued into the work stuff. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on small talk, just enough to make them feel like I was interested in something personal to them. Sigh.

  68. TheAG*

    Alison’s advice is awesome but one thing that worked for me (that I didn’t see in the other comments) is…I told them. I am painfully shy and very socially awkward (until I know someone pretty well) but I hide it very well most of the time in quick interactions. In long-term interactions with a team, it’s going to come out at some point. When I’m stressed it can come out as being aloof or difficult to approach. So I tell them that I’m very shy and that sometimes my facial expressions aren’t actually what I’m feeling on the inside because I’m socially awkward.

    YMMV but it’s worked well for me in my last 2 teams and we’ve gotten tight pretty quickly.

  69. Nicky*

    One advice I’d give is try to look pleased to see them if they come to you (or at least not irritated). I have sometimes recieved the “unapproachable” feedback in my career, and it’s been when I have responded shortly to questions, or given the impression that I think they should know the answer. It makes people afraid to come to me and as someone who is supposed to be training people in a team, that is not good. So I need to remember to work on that.

  70. Grace*

    I had a former boss who was your typical “unapproachable” manager. One of the things the he took on to build better report with his team was to schedule monthly one on ones with his team. These meetings were always focused around us as the team member and could be to offer mentor ship with current task, career development, and sometimes an open and safe forum to discuss anything else that could be impacting our lives. Doing this a few times with him helped build that connection and approaching him became easier as I grew to know his style and personality type. It also gave him the opportunity to learn how we worked individually which allowed for relationships to grow organically.

  71. El l*

    Yeah, I think (beyond Alison’s typically excellent advice) the most important thing is to show that you have their back. If they need support, you can give it.

    Employees want to know that their manager will give them time off when I ask for it, new software/equipment if they ask for it, or for time and attention to think through a problem. Doesn’t mean you have to be a genie to them, or that you have to give personal relationship advice. But it’s important that they receive the message that you are not just “do this for me”, but that you can deliver for them.

    Best thing for you about this: It’s more about actions than words. Just say “I will take care of this for you” the first few times, do, and after that they’ll know they can trust you.

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