The Bridge to Somewhere: Building Accessible Leaders

Forgive me if the bridge metaphor for building connections to others (in this case, our employees) is overused. Still, I wanted to give a slightly different take on the lesson of bridges and connections in the workplace.  

The job of accessible leaders is building and maintaining the integrity of those bridges to employees while demonstrating approachable leadership traits, so that those same employees can cross and want to cross those bridges with confidence and ease. 

But first, the bridge.  

Bridges serve many purposes, but ultimately, they are about transporting people and goods to-and-from our desired destinations. Many were built decades ago, and we’re seeing and hearing about how they deteriorate due to neglect and inattention. For numerous reasons, the resources to maintain them haven’t been a priority for many of our cities, states, and municipalities. Yet we feel the impact when stuck in traffic or rerouted because one of those vital bridges is being repaired or replaced. We just sit in our cars and lament why this very basic need isn’t part of an overall strategy to build a stronger infrastructure. 

Positive Employee Relations Strategy 

Like our precariously held together brick and mortar bridges, the pandemic magnified our need for tending to those oft-overlooked bridges of connections to each other. Sure, the recalibration of employing the right platforms, software, and technology are important infrastructure considerations, but the invisible and even more critical human connection bridges may also need recalibration. 

What’s Your Strategy?  

Ask yourself these questions. 

  • Have you taken the time to do a quick assessment of those connecting bridges to your employees?  

The traditional employee watercooler isn’t a reliable source for getting a sense of what’s on the mind of employees. Has the company done a recent engagement survey that can provide you with current and reliable information? What about a pulse survey or even 1-1s or team meetings to better understand what is on the minds of your employees? 

  • Do you feel confident that the bridges are intact, passable, welcoming, and even visible?  
  • In other words, do employees know how best to connect? Is an “open door” policy simply a gimmick versus an actual practice and permission to engage and connect in meaningful and accessible ways? 
  • Do you have bridges to nowhere that feign being accessible but end up taking you nowhere, or worst yet, on a looped rotary with lots of great signs but no real planned destination? 

Beyond the open-door policy, are employees confused about when to stop by in person or virtually? Do you have set hours for flybys, and are there necessary rules of engagement to help be productive in these sessions/meetings. 

approachable leadership

The Competency Map 

Leaders are the “big-picture” architects of the processes, systems, and structures employees must bypass, engage with and even avoid to get the work done. Now, what will you do if the answers to those previous questions are “no or not satisfactory” enough? 

Accessible leadership means not only managing the architecture, but being approachable to provide guideposts, encouragement, directions, and even detours when needed.

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Leadership Accessibility Traits

Much has been written about these four key leadership accessibility traits. They include: 

  1. Consistently praising and role modeling the organization’s values.
  2. Encouraging transparency and honesty  
  3. Providing guidance and support by developing others, and 
  4. Fostering mutual respect and humility irrespective of title and position. 

The Trust Gap 

All these practiced traits build trust between managers/leaders and their employees. This translates to a trust dividend that inspires employees to excel in good times and bad. Employees will only cross the bridge if they trust you and believe that the space on the other side is safe and the person there is approachable. Crossing that bridge is a leap of faith: It requires trust 

Yet, in the hybrid work environment, the challenge is putting those behaviors into a manageable practice. A recent study shows that 18-30% of employees had little or no trust in the leaders of their company. And where trust is lacking, employee engagement is likely low, too. To cross the bridge between the need and the reality, accessible leaders need to be more approachable. Being approachable is about putting your employees at ease so they can perform their best.  

10 Traits that Build Accessible Leaders 

1. Make the first move.
Being an approachable leader means initiating contact first. Make eye contact. Share the first bit of information or ask the first question. Make those first few minutes comfortable for the employee.

2. Start listening.
Being an approachable leader means you are a good listener (and if you aren’t one, practice becoming one). Don’t interrupt, don’t judge. Listen to understand. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand. Restate what you heard and/or maybe take notes. Listeners don’t always offer advice. The default is to offer only when asked or to offer first to see if the employee is open to advice. 

3. Share more. 
Being an approachable leader means sharing more, and in return, you’ll typically receive more. Confide your thinking on a business issue. Disclose something about yourself that you are comfortable with before you ask for theirs.  

4. Make connections. 
Approachable leadership means remembering important things about your employees (try knowing at least three things about them). Asking a few questions solicits important information, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t be just about work. The deeper the questions, the deeper the connections.  

5. Watch your non-verbals. 
Being an accessible leader who is approachable means being aware of how you are presenting—are you smiling, projecting a welcoming posture? Are you speaking pleasantly and not in an aggressive or forceful tone? Do you appear disinterested (looking at your phone while you talk or listen)?  

6. Ask lots of questions. 
Approachable leadership also means taking a holistic approach to supporting employees, and being sincerely curious about your employees and delving more into how they feel about something, not just what they think. Probe until you fully understand what they are trying to tell you. 

7. Be universally approachable. 
Being an accessible leader means getting out of your comfort zone and relating and engaging with all people, including those unlike you. Practice being approachable beyond your team members. 

8. Overcome shyness. 
Being an approachable, accessible leader means starting 1-1; practice short interactions with someone you already know on your team. Practice, practice, practice with strangers, with your family and friends. Practice conversations that help you get over the awkwardness and shyness that is your default. 

9. Put people at ease. 
Accessible leaders know how to read their audience. The more you know your employees through first or even secondhand observation, the better you will get at learning how to engage and interact with them. It’s both art and science, and people are mostly empathetic and appreciate when you make the first move.  

10. Prepare for conflict. 
Being an approachable leader means you’ll eventually experience this paradox: being more approachable invites more conflict. Why? IT’s likely because you’ve established that trust, and now your employees feel comfortable talking to you! Understand that conflict is good because it provides an opportunity to better understand your employees and the challenges and obstacles they may be facing. When you know, you better understand how to help, respond, and react. 

leadership accessibility

Building a Stronger Bridge to Your Employees – The Takeaway 

As an accessible leader, take pains to build bridges that encourage connection and engagement with your employees. All these actions will help you build a high-performing team that can accomplish amazing things because they help you increase the trust gap. Amazing things like: 

  • Improving communication across all levels of the organization 
  • Helping solve problems between managers/leaders and employees 
  • Addressing issues or challenges proactively before they become larger problem areas 
  • Encouraging healthy and constructive discussion. 
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