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Is Your 'Open Door' Policy Silencing Your Staff?

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 9:14 AM EDT

Everything seemed to be going fine on your team. But then, out of the blue, a staffer missed a key deadline, contributed to the loss of a major customer, or failed to get a new one. How did it happen? For clues, consider your practices for soliciting and addressing employee feedback, even -- and especially -- when it's negative. No matter how approachable and reasonable you seem, chances are high that your direct reports are keeping potentially crucial feedback close to the vest. The frequent failure of employees to speak up at work is among the research focuses of Cornell's Johnson School professor James Detert (one of his most recent papers, Speaking up to Higher-Ups, can be downloaded for a charge of $18). Detert has determined that employees often remain mum due to fear, even when their criticisms would serve to improve their organizations. And the mechanisms commonly used to encourage feedback -- including anonymous suggestion boxes, ombudsman processes, and open-door policies -- only serve to reinforce notions that it's imprudent to say what's really on your mind. After all, why does everything have to be so hush-hush? And if a boss is really so concerned about her direct reports' problems, would she really wait for them to come to her?

To assure your staff that you can handle the truth, you'll have to understand that you're up against their "implicit voice theories" -- basically, beliefs accumulated over time that enable employees to choose a course of action based on past experience, say at a prior job. "We recognize that people bring baggage to intimate relationships," says Detert. "But for some reason, when we study relationships within organizations, we assume behavior is only a function of the current job." Nightmare bosses aside, when staffers hold their tongues, they're reacting to your role, not you.

Let them know that things will be different this time around by going out of your way to seek feedback and close loops. Don't just assume that because you're jovial and non-threatening, your direct reports will eagerly walk through your "open door" to share their challenges. Instead, says Detert, go to them. Stop by and ask what you or the team can do better. Find out what worked best at their last job.

Somewhere along the line, members of your team have likely internalized the message that you can't raise an issue unless it's accompanied by a solution. Nonsense, says Detert. At meetings, explicitly state that you want to hear about problems. As for the solutions, tell your team you'll work on those together.