A fake win!
Have you as a Manager ever told your employees “If you have ANY questions, you can always come to me. My door is always open”. And then you walked away feeling good because you believed you offered genuine availability to discuss any possible concern your staff might have?
If that’s the case, then it is likely you suffer from a blind spot and you make your life way too easy. The impact of this phrase is one of the most frequent misconceptions I see when I work as a Coach with first line Managers, especially in Asian workplaces.
This situation and how it plays out looks at first like a win/win for the Manager. They offered their (genuine!) availability, and then no one actually came to use up their time. It’s similar to that time when you grudgingly offered yourself to participate in an unpopular meeting, but then it got cancelled at the last moment (‘Yes!’). You showed genuine and credible commitment, but then an external factor reduced your actual required effort to zero. A double win for you in terms of reputation and productivity.
A Fake Win
However, what in the case of “if you have any question, you can always come to me“? If no one shows up, it is in most cases a fake win, with an actual loser on the other side: the direct report.
When we tell people they can always ‘come to us’, we put the burden on them to take action.
Think about it.
How often will there ever be this elusive moment, where your staff approaches your workstation, and they see you sitting there, relaxed, with a smile and ready to discuss without time limit whatever they have in mind?
Or is it much more likely that you are a very busy person who is intensely involved in multiple activities (writing an email, working on a document, making a phone call), with limited time available to discuss whenever someone approaches your desk in an ad-hoc fashion?
When we are honest with ourselves, we know that the second scenario is much more likely and realistic. And your direct reports will know and see that, often more clearly than yourself. Which is why you have just ignored one of the biggest psychological barriers that you created for approaching you..the need for your staff to evaluate every time ‘Is my issue really important enough to interrupt my manager at this time?’. Make no mistake..this is a high barrier to cross for many employees.
When you tell your direct reports that they can approach you anytime, you put the burden on them to decide when and how to approach you. They have to scan you, understand your schedules, your mood, your availability. That is a lot of mental juggling. And they hate the risk of picking a wrong time and talking to you when you are potentially distracted. They have to invade your territory to get something from you. In short, for most people, there is little psychological safety in the freedom you seemingly gave them.
Exclusion, not inclusion.
The result of your original offer? You created a scenario that actually reduces interaction with your employees to a great degree, except for those in your team who are naturally bold and more outspoken, because they are the one’s who are willingly taking up your offer. You have been exclusive, rather than inclusive.
So what can you do instead?
If you are genuinely interested in the questions, views and worries of your people, create pockets of psychological safety where you remove the need to interrupt you, so that that the ‘barrier’ to jump over is much lower for them. This means you have to be an active part.
Examples of how it can be done?
1. Pick and block regular slots (a few hours here and there) per week that you promise your team to be at your desk and available. Declare to your team that this is the best time to just approach and ask questions. Make sure you really block this time and don’t take calls. If no one comes, practice walking around visibly and starting conversations with them individually, so they actually feel you are really available and that they have the actual right to draw time from you. This might take some time to sink in. Have questions and insights prepared for them.
2. Get used to approaching your more introverted and reserved employees actively, rather than waiting for them to approach you. Make a point to practice this kind of active inclusion regularly. Members of your team are not the same and you should treat them based on their individual needs.
3. Consider experimenting with a regular (what I call) Open Team Meeting. This means that during one hour you literally sit with different members of your team (best in open-plan offices) for a while to discuss functional questions and topics at a permissible noise level. The key is here that the other team members see evidence of your willingness and fairness to be responsive.
4. Instead of saying “you can approach me anytime on this, just let me know“, offer a specific time and day when you will be available and commit, in order to reduce ambiguity. “I know this is a tricky upcoming task. How about we both reserve Tuesday 10-10.30am for us to discuss details if needed? If we require the slot, we use it. If not, we can skip it and give ourselves back some time.”
There are lots more options out there in how to mend this situation, but I hope that the next time you as a front line Manager indiscriminately offer your availability, you think twice on the actual barrier you create along with it.
Maik is a resourceful Executive and Leadership Coach, Program Facilitator and HR Improvement Consultant based in Singapore. Maik uses a unique toolkit mix of analytical risk management and strengths-based people development, to help clients identify and safely grow their value drivers and strengths.
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