August 17, 2010

Two things we know: Employees would like more feedback from their bosses and they’d like to be heard as well. In one recent survey, 66 percent of employees said they had too little interaction with their bosses.

It’s tempting to blame that on supervisors who consciously keep their distance from staff. But I suspect there’s more at work here. Even well-intentioned bosses contribute to the disconnect. I call it The Myth of the Open Door.

That’s what exists when managers, knowing interaction is a two-way street, announce that they have an Open Door Policy. They state, and believe in their hearts, that people who report to them are free to stop by and share what’s on their minds.

Because some staffers walk right in, the managers see it as proof that the policy works. But that logic is built on counting those who show up rather than those who don’t. It’s easy for bosses to assume that since the door is always open, those who opt not to stop in are satisfied with the status quo.

It can be a real surprise when managers discover that to some staff, the open door mantra is a myth. Good employees can feel shut out.

Here are four ways it happens:

Your door is open — but people aren’t comfortable making the approach.

It can be hard for managers, especially extroverts, to grasp why employees would pass up a standing offer to visit. But employees have their reasons. They may be introverts who don’t relish initiating the conversations. Some staffers may assume that a visit to the boss’s office is reserved for problems or solutions that are truly remarkable, not routine. Some may fear that stopping by with a concern, comment — or heaven forbid, a compliment — could brand them as a troublemaker, showboat or suck-up.

Your door is open — but you haven’t been clear about “chain of command” and communication.

This happens when there’s a layer of managers between you and staff. Employees may fear they’ll be accused of doing an end run around their immediate supervisor if they share thoughts with you. Unless you make your preferred protocol clear to the whole staff, people may hang back. All it takes is one bad experience for people to play it safe and stay away.

Your door is open — but you send lots of mixed signals.

Bosses are “always on.” People watch you and read meaning — perhaps accurate, perhaps wildly off-base — into your actions. If you’re out of your office a lot, people may assume you’re inaccessible. When you’re there, they may scope out who spends time with you and surmise those folks are the “in” group — and they’re “out.” When you tell a would-be visitor that you’re busy but don’t close the loop — that is, tell them when you can meet — they may feel like offenders or the offended when you intended neither.

Your door is open — but visits aren’t worth the effort.

If you multitask your way through conversations with employees, if you lecture instead of listen, if you listen but don’t follow through, or if you routinely start appointments late and end them early, you’re sending a powerful message: Your open door is an invitation to frustration.

In addition to avoiding those traps, what else can you do?

  • Assume it’s your responsibility to reach out to those who don’t approach you. Some people may never knock on your door but still want to connect.
  • Help people understand the range of conversations they can bring your way — from major to minor, so they know the “password” to your place.
  • Have a clear understanding with your managers and staff about the definition of an “end run.” Build a culture that encourages people to solve problems at the lowest level and talk with their immediate supervisor before coming to you.
That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have great conversations with you about ideas and issues; they should know you’ll be transparent with their bosses about those conversations. (The exception: highly sensitive situations in which the immediate supervisor may be the problem.)
  • Close the loop. You can’t say “yes” to every person who pops in with, “Got a minute?” But “No, not now” doesn’t close the loop. Try my favorite reply: “I have a minute, but I bet your issue deserves more. How about this afternoon at 3:30, when we can really talk?”

Great bosses know the way to defeat the Myth of the Open Door is to keep an open mind about their responsibility for effective engagement with staff.

And, for the record, you can and should close that door for the right reasons. How do you handle that? I’ll explain in today’s podcast, “What Great Bosses Know about the Myth of the Open Door.”

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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