One reader writes:

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

I’ve been hearing this all my life, since middle school, even though different words have been used (“topped up”, “calm”, “distant”). I’m a neurotypical introvert who quickly opens up with people when I’m comfortable. I have depression and anxiety, but am (mostly) highly functional, so my illnesses are usually imperceptible to others and do not interfere with my work performance. I struggle to maintain friendships and make new friends, in part because my depression means I need to consciously care for and reach out to others.

At work, I am professional and focused and avoid engaging in non-work-related gossip or long conversations. Apart from that, I’m very good at my job and keep getting rave performance reviews and salary increases. Even before this feedback, I made a conscious effort every day to initiate small talk with all my direct superiors and colleagues, but it quickly fizzles out with people I don’t feel comfortable with and leads to feelings of shame and self-hatred.

I fear my ability to manage effectively will be perceived as aloof and I am having trouble addressing this issue. Having heard this kind of feedback about myself for a long time, I’m not sure if a change is possible, so am wondering if management is the right role for me at all.

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

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

The key is to show interest and diligence when conducting business discussions. These are conversations that you are already having and they are likely to be about topics of at least some degree of interest to you. So they don’t require you to initiate something completely new and leave your comfort zone.

Look at the difference between these two conversations.

Less accessible
Manager: What is the status of the Boysenberry Report?
Employees: I’m still waiting for changes from Legal, but as soon as I have them I’m almost done.
Manager: OK. Make sure you get them by Friday. What about the dragon fruit analysis?
Employees: It’s making good progress and I got really good input from people at yesterday’s meeting.
Manager: Okay, that’s it then.

More accessible
Manager: Hey, thank you for taking the time to talk to us at short notice! I only have a few quick questions about where we are with things. How is the Boysenberry Report progressing?
Employees: I’m still waiting for changes from Legal, but as soon as I have them I’m almost done.
Manager: Wow, they’re really stretching that, aren’t they? Are you okay with the timeline or can I do something to move it forward?
Employees: Yes, they take their time! I think it’s okay, I have planned a delay there.
Manager: That was wise! If you ever need to poke me, please let me know.
Employees: I will, thanks!
Manager: How do you come up with the dragon fruit analysis?
Employees: I think it’s pretty good. At yesterday’s meeting I got really good input from people.
Manager: I noticed that! I liked Craig’s position on the pulp. By the way, you explained very well why we decided not to focus on papayas.
Employees: Oh thank you!
Manager: Well I look forward to seeing it when you’re done. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you. Is there anything else we should talk about in the meantime?

These are obviously oversimplified conversations (I’ll clearly never be able to write fiction), but the idea is that you have warm, actively interested access to how people’s work is going. If even some of my conversations with a manager were like the second example, I would have a hard time finding that person aloof.

Plus positive feedback! People generally feel a lot less aloof when they say nice things about your job – so make sure you leave plenty of positive feedback. You don’t want BS people, of course, and you shouldn’t be insincere, but if someone is doing a good job in general there should be a lot of things that you can legitimately give positive feedback on – even little things like, “Great phrase in this paragraph! “Or” Smarter Pivot In This Meeting “.

Plus empathy! When someone is dealing with something difficult or frustrating (an outside contact that is cranky or difficult to reach, an impossible travel plan, etc.), acknowledging it can go a long way – even just saying, “I’m impressed with your patience “Was with him” or “tough schedule this month – can I do something?”

Other: Make sure you are open to other people’s ideas. Be open to conversation tangents – when you talk about X and they address Y, be curious and see where it leads. (This has limits, of course, if you have a long agenda or are pressed for time, for example.) Ask how you can help. Ask for input (“I fight with X and wonder what your opinion is”). Recognize people’s strengths (“You are so great at X – how would you go about it?”)

In many ways, accessibility as a manager means being friendly and open. It doesn’t have to be talking about your weekend or having lively small talk. Just show genuine interest and appreciation for what people are doing. (And for what it’s worth, there are plenty of people out there who would appreciate a manager who doesn’t care much about small talk but obviously cares about the things that matter.)

If you find that The is also a struggle then I would be more concerned about whether the job fits your current situation. But it sounds like so far you’ve designed rapport to be about how social you are, and it doesn’t have to be!

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