I have an open-door policy.
You heard a General Manager say it at a Town Hall meeting. You may have spoken those words yourself to a member of your team.
Come talk to me anytime.
Really? Like really? What does the GM actually mean when s/he says it? Did YOU actually mean it? How available to folks are we really when we have ambitious and perhaps unrealistic performance goals and never enough time?
An interview with Lt. General Nadja Y. West got me thinking about this. I am stirred by her personal story. Lt. General West is 1 of 11 adopted children in a second-generation army family. Her African-American Dad joined the army in 1939 when the army was still segregated. Nadya Y. West is currently the Army Surgeon General. She leads 140,000 people.
The day soldiers stop coming to you with their problems, West tells New York Times columnist Adam Bryant, in a paraphrase she attributes to Colin Powell, means one of two things. One is that you can’t help them because you’re not capable of helping them, or the other is that you don’t care. (NYT, 7/2/2017)
When we lead others, neither option is pretty.
Even if you’re busy and people keep coming to you, West suggests, never complain about that because that means they think you can do something about it or at least that you care.
Do people come to YOU? Do people feel like they CAN come to you? How approachable are you to your colleagues and folks on your team? Here are a few ways of gauging how approachable you really are:
1. Switch gears
When you walk down the hallway or run into a colleague in the cafeteria and s/he raises a concern, do you tune into this unexpected moment?
We tune in by stopping the rush of going somewhere else, by having our body fully turned to the person, by looking the person in the eye and holding the eye-connection. We do so by, just for the moment, releasing any mind chatter that has nothing to do with listening to this individual. This is challenging even in a formally scheduled meeting. It requires double the vigilance in the unexpected encounter.
2. Check your platitude meter
When our mind is elsewhere and someone brings an unexpected concern to us, it is easy to respond in platitudes. Gosh, that must be so frustrating. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea this was going on.
We may think we’re being an empathetic leader. They likely hear what we say as a bunch of platitudes. Use a platitude once too often, and the unintended message is Don’t come to me with any real issues. Don’t approach me, please. I don’t want to be bothered. And guess what, they will stop coming.
3. Hear the unspoken
When someone approaches us with a dilemma or problem, chances are s/he is initially only giving us the Readers Digest version of the problem. S/he may minimize the concern because s/he does not wish to upset us or be seen as a troublemaker. Listen for what they’re not telling you. The unspoken – that is the level of urgency and upset that is motivating them to address you. Every meaningful answer you provide needs to address the unspoken.
4. Stop mixed-messaging people
We pride ourselves on being transparent. We let folks know when we’re stressed, have too much on our plate, work late to meet deadlines, are having a bad day. If these messages become the standard rather than the exception – guess what, folks are unlikely to come talk to us. We have successfully messaged them into wanting to leave us alone.
5. Forego protocol once in a while
You respect protocol. Great. If, however, every time a team member comes to you with a concern you direct him or her to someone else – this is really a HR issue, this is something you may want to discuss with Bob – the message is clear. I will not take any risks in helping you. And you’re likely right, it may be a HR issue. Choose to get involved. Be an ally. Offer to go to HR with your team member. Otherwise, you have just become the boss I never want to approach with anything.
Lt. General West’s guidance is doubly compelling since she leads in the military where she can, in theory, rule by command alone. West gets it. Be a fully human leader. Be ready to hear that which you may not wish to hear. Keep an open mind and heart. And let them SEE this open mind and heart.
In our rushed and overcommitted work days, not an easy thing. And oh so worth it.