I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about “Open Door Policies.” The thing is: It isn’t about the door! It’s about your ability to listen objectively and take into consideration another person’s perspective, usually an employee, direct report, colleague or peer.
I think many people have taken the “open door” literally. I once had the experience of having a supervisor require that the door on my office door always be open. Now for a CFO or any upper-level financial or accounting person, that creates an interesting conflict. How do you control the confidential information you have to work with and discuss with a door that can’t be closed?
The “open door” is a metaphor for keeping an open mind, being available to address issues and to receive feedback. It goes beyond simply hearing the words. It means actively listening to the person with the issue, insight or criticism.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a person that enjoys negative feedback, dealing with hurt feelings, or any of the multitude of less-than-positive events that leaders face daily. But it is part of our role as leaders to deal with those issues. Our effectiveness at leading our organizations depends on how we react to good news and more importantly to bad news. How we deal with criticism of our actions and whether we respect others opinions.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with the information, perspective or emotion being expressed. The point is to acknowledge the person and the emotion. You can do that by keeping these guidelines in mind:
- Separate yourself from the action being criticized: Keep your emotions to yourself.
- Ask questions to determine whether the item is objective or a matter of perspective.
- Ask questions to clarify and understand the facts, emotions, and context of the situation.
- Only make promises you can keep.
- Ask what the person wants.
- Keep listening and take informed action if called for.
- Don’t think you are required to act. Sometimes it is sufficient just to listen and understand.
- Ask for the performance issue in writing if it is an objective business matter. Have the facts put in writing, and requests made that you can act on.
Businesses are about people. Some are employees, some colleagues, some investors and hopefully a lot of them are customers. Your ability to truly hear issues and make appropriate responses are a measure of your ability to succeed as a leader. Your ability to lead an organization will ultimately be measured by your listening skills and the ability to act appropriately in the face of conflict.
Conflict management is a skill that is required of all levels of an organization as well as on a personal basis. Conflict in itself is neither bad or good. Conflict is simply the state of two or more minds not being aligned in thought, opinion or perspective.
Conflict arises as a natural output of our interactions with one another. Our experience, education and personal skill sets bring different “filters” into play in every situation. The leader and business that can leverage conflict to get 360 degree perspectives, out-of-the-box thinking, brainstorming and other essential viewpoints into play in daily and long term strategy will have an advantage over other organizations who view conflict as something to be avoided.
I’m not saying that every situation that has conflict is good. Conflict that goes unresolved is disruptive, counterproductive and consumes huge amounts of company resources and personal energy. Having a set process for addressing conflict within any organization will have positive effects on individual and corporate performance.
Difficult employees are often those whose issues haven’t been adequately addressed. One example I can think of from my corporate days is Joan. Joan had worked for the company I joined for over 20 years. Joan was a “by the book” personality. I kept hearing about how hard Joan was to deal with. By the time I met Joan, I had built up this picture of an incompetent person with nothing to contribute to the organization. (At this point, I have to admit a fondness for the “square pegs” in the organization. I have generally found them to be a wealth of information, history and perspective.)
The first time I met Joan, she provided me with very specific, documented processes and procedures, something I hadn’t encountered in any other business unit or for that matter anywhere in the organization. As I continued to meet with her, I found her to be informed and cooperative, but stubborn. As we worked together, I came to understand that Joan became a “by-the-books” person as a result of no one wanting to fix the process issues.
She had discovered that if you create enough pain in the organization by forcing the organization to follow its own rules, then and only then do you get things to change.
Unfortunately, because of this, Joan was now pegged as a “troublemaker.” In reality, Joan was one of the best employees this company had. Long hours, weekends and last-minute emergencies weren’t issues for her. The corporation’s leaders didn’t know how to listen to the real issues. In fact, many time I witnessed the metaphorical “open door” slam in the face of very knowledgeable and skilled professionals, because management (note I’m not referring to them as leaders) didn’t know how to address issues and deal with conflict. They just created more dissension and conflict for the organization. In Joan’s case, they undervalued a prize resource and ultimately lost her to a competitor.
Keeping the door open is about attitude, perception, and leadership. It isn’t about a physical obstacle. It is about your ability to value each person and his/her perspective. You aren’t required to agree with them. Just hear them out! Give them respect and consideration. Most of all give them your time and attention.
Author: Lea A. Strickland, MBA CMA CFM CBM GMC
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