Leadership advice: What’s getting in the way of your open-door policy?

Good listening skills, being approachable, and genuinely encouraging feedback are all things that good leaders tend to exhibit. Many business advice experts contend that having open and honest two-way channels of communication between leaders and employees is critical to business success. Not only do your employees provide valuable insight into the customer experience and ideas for improving efficiency, they also keep you connected to the frontline realities facing your business in ways that productivity reports and KPIs cannot. It is for this reason that many leaders like to say, “My door is always open,” as a way to encourage honest and open communication between themselves and their staff. In reality, however, there are some fundamental issues with this statement.

In their recent article, Megan Reitz and John Higgins, strategy consultants and colleagues at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School, point out that while leaders have every intention of adopting an open door policy and encouraging team members to approach them with ideas or concerns, in reality, “leaders often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to speak honestly to them.” As a launching point, Reitz and Higgins consider some of the counterproductive assumptions behind the phrase, “My door is always open: ”

  • People come to you and not the other way around. Any communication will be on your turf, on your terms.
  • You have the luxury of a door.
  • You choose when that door is open and when it is not.

So how do leaders cut through the clichés and create an environment ripe for genuine and authentic communication throughout the ranks? According to Reitz and Higgins, there are five areas to consider:

  1. When it comes to other peoples’ opinions, how do you really feel? If you’re being honest, you know that there are some opinions you are genuinely interested in and others, not so much. One CEO interviewed by Reitz and Higgins admitted, “I expect that my ego sometimes prevents me from hearing stuff I should be listening to.” The authors suggest that a good question you should be asking yourself is: “How do I know that I have a reputation for being open to changing my mind?”

  2. Assess the risk of speaking up. Humbly, enthusiastically, and positively reacting when someone vocalizes an opposing opinion or challenges you isn’t an easy task. And the reality is that while you might be able to do this nine times out of 10, it will be that one time that you grumble dismissively that will resonate and reverberate with your team for months, maybe years. At the end of the day, people are hyperaware that their ultimate success and longevity with the company is in your hands and they don’t want to risk doing anything to jeopardize that. Reitz and Higgins suggest that, as leader, “it is you who will need to be extra vigilant of the signals you are sending out when someone has built up the courage to speak up. And you have to apologize publicly when you have a bad day (as everyone does) and cut somebody off at the knees.”

  3. Consider the politics at play. For better or for worse, politics play a major part in the organizational framework of any organization. Being sensitive to the ways in which “personal agendas play out… in what we choose to say to one another” will help you understand what motivates people to say what they say or, alternatively, keep quiet. Tuning into the political landscape of your organization will help you decide “whether to surface that agenda, whether to lower the stakes so the person speaks up, or whether to widen the circle of individuals you listen to and include those less concerned with ‘playing the game.’”

  4. What labels do we wear? The labels applied to different people — “manager,” “HR,” “young,” “CEO” — have different meanings in different contexts, but are inextricably tied to notions of status. And, as Reitz and Higgins point out, “status governs the unwritten rules around who can speak and who gets heard.” Conscious awareness of labeling and the advantages certain labels have over others will help open the (in)visible doors standing between you and your team.

  5. Enough talk about open doors, what actually encourages open communication ? If you’ve carefully considered the previous points, your heightened awareness of some of the barriers to open communication will help guide what it is you need to do to enable and encourage those around you to speak up. The authors suggest a few examples, which include: “choosing to dress more casually, introducing a ‘red card’ at executive committee meetings to ensure someone has the ability to challenge you, or carefully holding your tendency for extraversion in check so that others get a moment to speak up.”

For leaders truly invested in building a culture of two-way communication, it all starts with getting out from behind that door and cultivating an environment of genuine openness.

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