Almost all leaders say they have an open door policy. Almost all leaders say they do not want “yes men” surrounding them. Few sufficiently understand or fully mean either of these things.
Leaders must challenge themselves as to whether they genuinely value acts of courageous followership. These are rarely voices that bring good news or concordant views. In the moment, they can seem to be an irritant or even thwarting of the leader’s ambitions. The challenge for leaders is to see past the immediate discomfort being caused and to value the larger picture of how they and the common purpose are served by the willingness of the follower to raise sensitive issues.
Earlier, we examined the difference between a follower who is highly supportive of a leader and acts as an “Implementer” and a follower who is both highly supportive and willing to challenge a leader’s policies or behaviors. We called the latter type a “Partner.” Courageous followers are Partners. Leaders need at least a few Partners around them, but Implementers appear to be a leader’s dream. They execute the leader’s intentions and don’t absorb the leader’s time with questions or arguments.
It is true that a leader’s time is precious. Those who work with a leader need to economize on their use of a leader’s time and protect the leader from being stretched too thin. Elevated leaders such as senior executives and officials elected to high office have and need assistants to screen and balance demands on their time. This is appropriate.
But leaders can become so pressed for time and so focused on implementation of their agenda that they find it difficult to listen patiently to followers, even if they are direct reports, who want to take time to raise an important concern. These leaders may technically have an open door policy but treat those who walk through it in ways that severely limit their ability to convey their concerns and their willingness to raise future concerns. As a result, these leaders rarely hear divergent views and interpret the absence of these as agreement with their ideas and support for their administration and policies. This may be so. But it is also an indication that there are potentially serious blind spots in these leaders’ appreciation of critical events and the likely impact of decisions being made in response to these events.
As leaders’ direct reports usually have some access to them, and hopefully some latitude to offer divergent views, it is perhaps even more important to establish this potential with staff who don’t report directly to the leader. Disciplined leaders practice some version of management by walking around to keep a finger on the pulse of things. But doing this does not ensure they will hear about sensitive issues. That, of course, is the function of the open door policy. However, the dynamics of an open door policy are more complex than is usually realized.
It is rare for employees to request a meeting with a senior executive who is two or three levels above them, unless they are tasked to report on an issue. It is rare to bypass the next level in the chain of command to raise a sensitive issue at a higher level because of the potential for damaging the relationships with the people who have the most direct power to punish or reward them. A leader who receives a request from two or three levels down the command chain to meet must treat it seriously. Those who guard the leader’s time can be authorized to gather information about the nature of the requested meeting, but they should not be authorized to block it without informing the leader.
Leaders of large organizations often cannot imagine what they don’t know about their organizations. They typically have prescribed information channels that filter or “scrub” information before it reaches them. If junior members of an organization overcome the psychological and cultural inhibitions against jumping levels in the chain of command, there is a reasonable chance that the information they want to give the leader is important. With the exception of requests to meet about individual personnel matters, which we will deal with later in this chapter, it is almost always advisable for the leader to meet with the staff member.
What leaders do in and after that meeting, however, will determine whether this or any other employee risks bringing sensitive information to them in the future. How do they receive the employee’s information? Do they listen well, or do they interrupt and intimidate the employee? Do they do anything meaningful to act on and follow up on the issue? Do they do so in a way that does not come back to haunt the employee? Do they ask further questions about how they themselves may be contributing to the problem? Do they seek the employee’s ideas on other questions that may affect the organization? Whether the employee experiences the contact with the leader as good or painful, useful or not, word will fly around either way and ingrain itself in the fabric of the culture.
As a leader, do not mistake the fact that you say you have an open door policy for having one that functions. The acid test is whether staff actually come to you with tough issues about corporate behavior or your own behavior or policies.
If you rarely receive requests from staff to use the open door policy, it usually means that factors are inhibiting its use that outweigh the perceived benefits of taking advantage of it. If you understand the value of fostering courageous followership, you need to examine what those factors might be. How can you do this?
Keep a standing open door meeting time on your calendar, and promote the fact. If it doesn’t get used much, investigate why.
Ask individual staff whether you do anything that dissuades them from using the open door policy; press for a substantive answer.
Ask senior staff who report to you to pose this question for you; they may get answers that you would not hear directly.
When these staff report their findings, thank them and avoid the impulse to defend yourself.
Check your understanding of what they are telling you by asking whether you displayed any of the dissuading behaviors in this particular meeting.
If you did display that behavior, make sure you understand exactly what it consisted of: tone of voice, body language, choice of verbal language, and so on.
For example, some leaders pride themselves on not suffering fools gladly. This may be one of the characteristics that enabled them to reach the heights of leadership. But this very characteristic, which cuts through excuses or long-winded explanations, can also block critical information from reaching the leader. Tempering a tendency to impatiently challenge a point being developed by a nervous employee can open channels that are otherwise unavailable to high-powered executives. An open door policy is only effective in proportion to the leader’s listening skills. Leaders who get feedback that they are weak in this area are well advised to make improving their listening skills a high priority.