Unapproachable Supervisor

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about:

How do you tell your supervisor that she is unapproachable?

Signed, Hesitant

Dear Hesitant:

You probably can’t tell anyone that he or she is unapproachable without immediately having defensive barriers pop up. Most people don’t mind being accused of a variety of flaws, but all of us seem to like to believe we are approachable, honest and have a good sense of humor. Just read the personal ads to see that! (And apparently we all like to take long walks and we enjoy quiet evenings at home, too!)

Consider these issues:

1. Does she literally refuse to let you talk to her, or is she simply not as open as she should be to employee concerns or conversation? Perhaps you should focus on just approaching her, no matter how uninterested she seems to be, or how intimidating she might seem. Many people are not friendly or open in their demeanor, but they are nevertheless available to do their jobs when it is required of them. Perhaps she doesn’t realize you have something important to say to her and is waiting for you to speak up.She may never be a comfortable person to communicate with–so you may need to overcome your feelings about that instead of waiting for her to gain better skills. Treat her as though she wants to communicate better but doesn’t know how. Be the approachable one for her, and see if that doesn’t help both of you.

2. What do you mean when you say she is unapproachable? What does she do that makes you hesitant to interact with her? Rather than use a generic term, think of descriptions about specific behaviors, facial expressions, comments, work schedules, closed doors, etc.Your boss may be able to think of many times when you have approached her just fine, and had decent conversations about work. She may also have reasons for her behaviors that about which you are not aware. So, know exactly what concerns you, then use those descriptors.

3. What do you do as a result of the things you describe when answering #2? It will be important to say, in a few words, how you respond to that. And, keep in mind, that she may only seem unapproachable to you but not to others. Consider if it is some aspect of your style and hers, combined that adds to the situation, so you can address that as well. For example, if she is very introverted and you are very extroverted.If she seems to communicate well with some other employee, observe those situations to see what is making them successful.4. What would you prefer instead? What kind of communication would make you feel that you could approach your supervisor more comfortably? In some ways, this is the most important question because your supervisor could change in a variety of ways but still might not make you feel comfortable enough to interact with her in the best way.After you’ve thought about those things, you will need to reduce them to a few words and find a chance to say them. One of the best times is during evaluations, when both of you may be talking more freely about work. But, those times are limited.So, the least dramatic way may be to wait until you sense that you are being shut out from talking to her because of her actions, and use that as a way to bring up the topic, at the first opportunity.

These sample dialogues won’t sound like you or your work environment, but you may be able to adapt them in some way: If you try to talk to her and she seems to shut you off: “Jane, I really need to talk to you about this. You seem angry with me for coming in, or at least you’re frowning and won’t talk. Have I done something to upset you?”That might open the door to further conversation, where you can explain your feelings better. Focus on your feelings rather than her lack of communication skills. Or, if she stays behind closed doors or doesn’t interact with employees: “Jane,there are a lot of times when I want to talk to you about something, or ask your advice. But I don’t feel I should because you’re focused on your work. Are there some times that are better than others for me to come in, or could we set up a time where I know you’ll be available?” Or, “Are you angry with me?” “Would you rather I not come in now?” “Are you upset about something I can help with?” “Do you think I shouldn’t be asking about that?” “I get the feeling I’m not making this very interesting or clear. Is that what you’re thinking?”Or any one of hundreds of things to draw attention to how you feel, in response to something she has said or done.

The main thing you want to remember is that the boss will still be the boss. It may be that none of these suggestions will be worth the hassle of irritating someone who has more control over you than you have over them.Thus, my first suggestion may be the one you ultimately need to focus on: Find ways within your own style to work with her as though she IS approachable. That may be what it takes to help her feel more comfortable with you, while you become more comfortable with her. Best wishes. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.