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An open door policy in a climate of fear: why your employees aren’t talking to you

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 - 16:13

By Hamish Williams

Whether you like it or not, your employees are scared of you. No matter how many times you throw your corporate credit card over the bar for a long lunch or how many cat memes you plaster around the office, at the end of the day you’re the boss. You control how people spend their time for the majority of their lives when they aren’t sleeping. Your every move affects their mood for good or bad and on top of all of that their entire livelihood is, for all intents and purposes, in your hands.

Is it any wonder there’s a few things they aren’t telling you that they probably should? No not my team, I hear you say. We’re all on the same page. I’m a great communicator. I’m approachable. My door is always open. News flash – you won’t find many bosses who keep their door closed these days.

The reality is that your employees worry that you’ll take their comments personally or that they’ll feel like they’re overstepping their mark and encroaching into your treasured leadership territory. Research by James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burrisha has identified a number of areas where managers and leaders make mistakes when communicating with employees.

  • Relying on anonymous feedback. The idea is if no one knows who said what, no repercussions will follow, so people can be forthright about any topic. Unfortunately this actually emphasises the risks of speaking up and reinforces people’s fears. Anonymity can also set off a witch hunt as some bosses demanded to know “Who said this?!” Also, it can be difficult to address issues of abuse or harassment while protecting the identity of the people who raised them.
  • Issuing general invitations to come forward. As we’ve mentioned, open doors and attitudes are simply too passive. People still have to approach you to initiate a conversation, and that’s intimidating. In particular, if you closely identify with an initiative, they’ll probably withhold constructive criticism about it, assuming you’ll take it personally.
  • Sending signals that you’re in charge. Once again, you’re very scary as you’re probably conveying your power through subtle cues. Your office, body language and tone of voice can all inadvertently (or intentionally) intimidate your employees.
  • Failing to model free expression. If you don’t share what you hear from employees with your own senior managers, your employees will stop wasting their time. Formal power comes with an expectation that you’ll be the voice of your subordinates and take action on their behalf. Failure to do so can be very demotivating.

Detert and Burrisha do offer some hope for opening the communication channels with employees as they offered the following best practices based on their research.

  • Make feedback a regular, casual exchange. Holding regular meetings and making time for frequent face to face conversations will help these interactions to feel less foreboding and more natural.
  • Reach out. If you really want to know what people think about a project or an idea, ask them yourself. Otherwise, employees might seek you out only when things aren’t going well for them. Soliciting informal feedback can be much more effective than just being open to it when it comes your way.
  • Soften the power cues. Play down your position and its inherent power when interacting with employees. One reason MBWA (management by walking around) is so effective is that it shifts the home ground advantage to the staff as the conversation happens on their territory, not yours.
  • Be the example. Employees understand that you don’t always have full control over the resources or decisions needed to address their issues. To determine whether it’s worth bringing things to your attention, they calculate how likely you are to represent their interests to the leaders above you. Employees feel inspired when they see you advocating for them.
  • Close the loop. If you don’t want people to think their ideas went straight into the bin, make sure you tell them what you did next and what they can expect as a result.

There’s no surefire way to get your employees to give you all of the information you want or need but continuing to rely on formal feedback processes and anonymous systems clearly won’t do you any favours. Above all, don’t just pay lip service to being approachable. Demonstrate an open and egalitarian attitude to your staff and they will notice. And remember, they notice everything you do.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can communicate more effectively in your current role, AIM has a wide variety of popular courses that can teach you the essential skills and knowledge you need for leading teams and most importantly, leading yourself. With courses such as Effective CommunicationPublic Sector Service Delivery and Communication and Assertiveness Techniques, we have a multitude of options for perfecting the professional communication skills that will enable you to achieve effective business results.

If up-skilling is on your agenda, why not take advantage of AIM’s Summer of Skills offer; 20% off almost all short courses in January. Find out more here.