10/02/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

What Happened to My Boss?

As a leader, if you're hard to reach, difficult to read, aloof, distant, or simply slow to respond to your people, you're creating four types of problems for your organization:

  • Your people tend to respond in kind, curbing their information flow to you, compromising your own ability to make good decisions that lead to great outcomes.
  • Your people lack your context and an understanding of the bigger picture necessary to make their own good decisions.
  • Without your coaching, developmental guidance and candid feedback, they will certainly not learn and improve in ways (and at a rate) you find meaningful.
  • Your lack of availability creates "churn" as people spend their time (and your organization's money) speculating about you with each other. What's going on with you? Why you're not tuned in? Are you snooty, misinformed, disinterested?

There are times when a leader can be temporarily absent or distant for good reason(s) -- yet when it's enduring, each of these issues can grow into serious roadblocks to an organization being at it's best, and stand in the way of your people doing their best work.

To "tear down that wall" there are three steps you can begin to practice until they become habits:

Practice-to-habit 1: Open a door in your wall.

You'd hope that your people would volunteer important information. But if you've been unresponsive, distant or aloof, many have shut down. So ask your people questions that challenge yourself to invite and respond to their input and feedback. Choose from the list, add your own, and try asking questions of your people and colleagues, one on one, and in increasing levels of frequency over time:

1. What do I need to know that I don't seem to see or understand?

2. What are you up against?

3. What would you suggest we do differently?

4. What strengths do we have that we aren't leveraging?

5. How can I be a more supportive (leader / colleague) to you?

6. In what ways can I be clearer?

7. What am I doing that's particularly motivating / inspiring, and/or particularly de-motivating or uninspiring?

8. If you could change three things about what or how we do what we do, what would they be?

Does this seem like a lot of effort? Just try a few. And if you're wondering if this is worth it, consider the leader who DOESN'T do this. What's your thought about them? "They have their reasons, but I don't get it," or "Does he value me or my ideas?" or "Does she see what I'm dealing with?" and "She doesn't know what's really going on around here." Chances are some of this is true.

Ask questions and listen to the answers, and you can avoid cutting off your own knowledge flow, even as you gain greater engagement from your team and colleagues.

Practice-to-habit 2: Be responsive.

When hearing from one's people, an aloof or distant leader will often let whole categories of their email, voicemail, text, IM, or comments go by without response. You can hide behind your position, or rationalize you are too busy, buried, or overwhelmed, etc., or simply answer them in your head, but not in reality. It translates as rude and de-motivating to them, and marginalizes their contributions. Time for change:

1. Don't ignore emails, texts, IM's, calls, or ideas shared with you by your people. At least acknowledge them.

2. When people actively offer you their ideas, suggestions, or feedback, take it in, and respond directly to the positive intention with which it was offered.

3. If you choose to go with the idea, then share that, and assign credit to them.

4. If you choose to reject it, explain that you considered it, discovered you had a different view (or different priorities), and be transparent about why you decided not to go with it.

Leadership means being in service to your people's needs should be a high priority. If this seems like a big effort, consider the leader who is so busy (or doesn't want input) they don't tend to respond to suggestions, ideas, and feedback. You may feel they heard you, but nothing seems to come of it -- a bit of a black hole, right? You start to wonder what it means, and eventually just stop sharing or trying. Being responsive goes a long way, and isn't a huge effort, particularly once it becomes a habit.

Practice-to-habit 3: Share what's happening with you.

When it comes to this, my aloof executive clients will ask me: really? Do they want me to over disclose? Am I supposed to be Oprah or what?

If you've been aloof or distant, your people are definitely doing two things: 1) they are making up their own (usually incorrect) stories about what's happening in your world, and 2) they are hungry to know you better. There's little or no chance you'll have to over disclose -- however, a little sharing on your part -- starting with one on one with a colleague or someone in your group -- on a regular basis, will go a long way to tearing down your wall.

1. Volunteer and discuss a significant challenge or issue you are grappling with, and (if needed) ask for help, perspective, or simple understanding.

2. Talk about a personal obstacle you've encountered and what you're doing about it.

3. Articulate a hope, a concern or fear, or a vision of the future, and discuss.

4. Express an ongoing frustration or source of stress and ask for input / suggestions.

5. Talk about a success or achievement that's important to you, yet that's proved elusive, and ask for suggestions or ideas.

If you want your people's best work, and/or your colleague's best collaborative efforts, you're going to have to show more of yourself than you have done so far, to give them the "why" they should be inspired or engaged about where you're heading them.

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Any / all of the above practices-to-habits for aloof or distant leaders can help you tear down the wall separating you from your colleague's and team's best work.