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Make sure employees are comfortable with you

6 min read


In the midst of our intense discussion, Dom, a vice president at a financial management firm, told me, “I don’t need great rapport, I just want Karl to show respect by doing what I ask.”

Dom wanted to prepare this smart professional for a more senior role and was very frustrated by repeated failed attempts to help Karl increase his business development abilities. He tried pointing out to Karl where his approach was lacking, giving guidance on better ways to create partnerships and support annual planning with clients. But over time, there was no real improvement. Dom attributed the lack of success to Karl having a real attitude problem. When I asked Dom whether Karl felt comfortable with him, he responded, “What difference does that make?”

The key to unlocking Dom’s challenge lies in unwinding the contention that great rapport with employees is not needed. Having employees comply with directives only takes them so far, and certainly lacks the engagement and developmental factors. While some employees are self-initiators, and others can be motivated by fear of failure, for most employees, support from their manager is a desired decisive factor for development.

Developing your staff requires that they: are open to candid performance input, maintain confidence in the face of adversity, and have opportunity and encouragement to take skills to the next level. Ensuring your employees feel comfortable with you is a requisite for this approach. To be clear, “being comfortable with your manager” has definite boundaries. It does not mean you need to be drinking buddies; you can have rapport without being very casual. A relationship which is respectful and trust-inspiring can be cultivated by the manager and become a basis for staff members to take new growth steps, even for the employees with attitude.

Can you spot which employees are uncomfortable with you?

Employees usually do not let you know that they feel uncomfortable; however the signs are embedded in day-to-day interactions. Even if you have done nothing to engender those uncomfortable feelings (e.g., new employees can feel insecure), you can turn it around. Step back for a moment and objectively consider if your employees show any of these signs on a consistent basis.

  • Hide problems or mistakes — the last thing some employees want to do is bring your attention to their mistake. They scramble to either bury it or try a quick fix, yielding little or no new learning from the experience (and potentially leaving customers upset).
  • Act defensively. These employees regularly blame others or the outside conditions for preventing them from getting the targeted results. And, while those other conditions may have been present, it is their lack of ownership toward making progress which is a sign that they are uncomfortable exploring this with you.
  • Are overly formal. These employees are hoping you will keep your distance, not getting too close or digging too deep. They may be self-protecting because of vulnerabilities they don’t want revealed. Yet, if they cannot open up, there’s less opportunity to take development-focused actions.

Getting your employees more comfortable with you (even the employees with attitude)

Well, consider who you are most comfortable with — people who are open, non-judgmental, receptive, and allow you to have your foibles while respecting you. What often gets in managers’ way is a desire for expediency and a conviction that they’ve got the right answers. Don’t allow these to be your stumbling blocks. Instead, try these actions that successful development-oriented managers use:

  1. Invite their ideas and feedback regularly. You’ve heard this before: one of the most powerful things a leader can do is listen, truly, it engages your staff. By both listening to words and interpreting non-verbals you will get cues about their feelings to a situation and what is holding them back. Summarize what you gather they are thinking and feeling, and you will open the door to a more productive conversation. It’s no surprise that research actually proves that empathic listening correlates with level of support reported by the recipient.
  2. Ask specific questions conveying genuine interest. Use thoughtful questions that move the discussion toward the targeted direction (questions such as “how is it going?” are too loose). Ensure your tone of voice is sincere rather than leading or blameful. Grasp their response and double back with more questions to explore further (e.g., “how will you prepare in order to handle this the next time?”).
  3. Show faith in their growing abilities. Anticipate imperfections or added time in their work, and build that into your game plan. Learn about your employee’s abilities, their tolerance for risk, and then delegate with appropriate stretch.
  4. Contract to turn mistakes into lessons. Be ready to handle their missteps with grace, a defining moment that demonstrates that their growth is your priority. You’ll then have their full attention as together you explore a more skilled approach for the next time, a lesson that will stick.
  5. Stay in the wings. Allow them to try things out their way, yet be accessible if really needed. Their struggle to get results, resulting in a sense of accomplishment, is an important element in their progress. It’s a balancing act that requires you to know what is happening while holding off your direct involvement.

What would have happened differently if, instead of demanding respect, Dom ensured Karl felt comfortable enough to: accept and talk through issues, acknowledge missteps as part of the equation, and take risks with new behaviors? Karl could have saved face with regard to his mistakes, dumped the chip on his shoulder, and felt supported to try things differently, advancing his skills.

Now, next time you see a pattern of avoidance, defensiveness or formality, consider how you can better help your employees develop by making sure your employees are truly comfortable with you and ready for those next strides toward growth.

Wendy Axelrod, PhD, is a recognized expert in manager-driven, work-centered people development. She is co-author of the practical “Make Talent Your Business: How exceptional managers develop people while getting results”. With over 30 years of experience as a corporate executive and external consultant, she has worked directly with thousands of leaders in workshops and as an executive coach. She speaks frequently at conferences and corporate workshops. Learn more about her consulting, speaking and coaching at

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