One of my favorite sections of the New York Times Sunday edition is called the, Corner Office. Each week they interview a business leader to share their insights on leadership. This particular interview started with the following question, “Do you have the equivalent of a first day speech you use in new jobs?” The leader concluded her response with, “My door is always open.”
When I hear this, I can’t help but think of Ronald Reagan’s famous line, in a 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, “Governor, there you go again.” How many times have you heard an executive proclaim, “My door is always open”? This declaration of openness must be one of the 10 commandments they teach in leadership school, Thou shall have an open door policy. But what they fail to mention is just how poorly it works and what an unfair burden it places on employees.
I must admit I have used this slogan a number of times; maybe you have also. What I want to know is, has it ever actually prompted you to walk up to the boss’s office and wait for the door to open so you can share your deepest concerns with the boss about how the company is killing your motivation and that of your co-workers? My guess is no. Personally, I can only remember two occasions when a employee even asked for an appointment to meet with me, never mind just showing up at my office door.
Why? Because employees do not trust and believe in stereotypical “I want to know what’s on your mind” leader-jargon. While this is not to say some leaders are not sincere in wanting to have meaningful conversations with their employees and believe that it is important to do so, it is important they not delude themselves into thinking an “open door policy” is the way to achieve this objective.
The reality is that the road from the shop floor to the boss’s office is a gauntlet of pot holes, U-turns, Stop signs, and a host of scowling people with fingers pointing at employees to turn back. Most doors are figuratively and literally closed no matter how often a leader proclaims, “My door is always open.” As Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership, states, “It may take a small act of courage to confront the boss with bad news about the company, but you have to be even braver to let the boss know he’s out of touch with how people are feeling, or that his ‘inspiring’ talks fall flat.”
It’s Not Their Job – It’s Yours
It’s not their job to come to you – it’s your job to go to your employees. It not about open doors; it’s about open walls. If leaders need a metaphor, it’s an “office without walls,” and you create this by going down on the shop floor and making yourself available to your employees. Take time to sit in their “office” and just maybe they will start to believe and trust that you really do want to know what’s on their mind.
I can’t say it any better than Frank Sinatra, “Wake up to reality”, a lyric from one of my favorite songs, I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Study after study and survey upon survey confirms that over 60% of employees are disengaged. This means they are not committed to giving their best. To put it bluntly, you are paying them and not getting a fair return on your investment. However, if you are still hardwired to believe that people’s primary motivation to work is only for money, then I want to say, “Wake up to reality.” Consider this statement from an extensive Global Workforce Engagement Survey:
“Employees must trust in your ability and character -- and understand your personal motivation. You won’t be able to match individual passion and proficiencies with organizational priorities if you don’t talk with your people. Get to know them. Understand not only their special talents but also their unique engagement drivers.”
You cannot get to know your employees and they will not understand you nor trust your character and motivation by proclaiming, “I have an open door policy.” The reason is simple; they will not show up. If, as Goleman states, it takes bravery and courage to give a leader feedback, it takes even more courage to do it in his or her office.
It takes courage for a leader to actively expose themselves on the battlefields of their organization, but that is exactly what employees expect of leaders; to model bravery. Leaders must lead by example. If you truly want employees to have confidence in you and you believe that their work experience is a critical factor in the productivity and success of your organization, consider these recommendations:
- Start the New Year by closing your office door as you walk out to engage your employees. Let them know that you are building an office without walls in attitude and actions. Schedule regular “open office visits on their turf” as well as spontaneous visits to your employees’ “offices”.
- Don’t preach the corporate gospel – Listen, Listen and Listen. Here are a couple of questions to get the conversation started:
- If I were able to change two things in the way I work with you, what two things would create the most value and benefit for you?
- · If I could change or remove something that interferes or prevents you from performing at your best, what two things would be the most important to you?
- Don’t make excuses or false promises and don’t feel that you need to have an answer. What they want most is for you to listen, understand and reflect, and to take action that is in the best interest of both the company and your employees.
- Engage your managers and supervisors in the process. They are the ones who must model the “office without walls” attitude and actions every day. You might want to start with your managers first and schedule a few individual and group meetings, remembering that they might be just as reluctant to give you the unvarnished feedback you need.
- Keep everyone informed. Make sure you create a feedback loop so that employees and managers are kept abreast of all decisions, actions and commitments. If something can’t be accomplished, explain the reasons why. Your employees may not like the decision, but they will develop respect for you, which in time will help to build the kind of trust you are want and need.
The Best Advice I Ever Got, by Michelle Peluso, President and CEO of Travelocity, that appeared in the, Harvard Business Review, October 2008 issue. I think it describes the spirit as well as the examples of what I refer to as An Office Without Walls:
"At a 5,000-person global organization, I simply can't know everyone personally. But I can apply my dad's techniques in a scaled-up way that lets me know as many people as possible, that encourages managers to do the same, and that makes our employees generally feel that this is a place where someone's looking out for them. I often visit our different offices; I hold brown-bag lunches every week; I regularly e-mail the whole staff about what's going well and what needs to improve; I hold quarterly talent management sessions with my direct reports; and I constantly walk the halls. When anyone at Travelocity e-mails me, I respond within 24 hours. I read every single word of our annual employee survey results and of my managers' 360-degree performance feedback - and I rate those managers in large part on how well they know and lead their own people."