Let me level with you -- your staff are lying to you. Even if you're the most likable and mild-mannered boss ever, it's still almost certain that your team has hidden complaints, unspoken grumbles, and untapped ideas for improving your business.
But you don't have to take my word for it. "No matter how open you are as a manager, our research shows, many of your people are more likely to keep mum than to question initiatives or suggest new ideas at work," wrote James Detert of Cornell and Ethan Burris of University of Texas as Austin on HBR recently.
No manager they've ever spoken with, the pair of professors note, has told them "I have a closed door policy." Yet almost all businesses suffer because front-line employees simply don't tell management about what's going on at the company.
The long article offers a boatload of advice to remedy this situation and help your team be more free with their feedback. But one suggestion sticks out as easily actionable and potentially hugely valuable -- just meet them on neutral ground.
Your chair is terrifying.
Your door might be open, but it still opens on to your office. That's your territory (even if it's there's no actual door, just your desk in an open-plan office). No wonder your team is reluctant to come charging into your lair and deliver unpleasant news.
"Open doors and attitudes are simply too passive. People still have to approach you to initiate a conversation, and that's intimidating," write the authors.
In some instances the power cues you're sending, even if totally unplanned, can contribute to keeping your team quiet. "Are you sitting behind a big oak desk, in an expensive ergonomic chair, while your employee sits in a much smaller, cheaper, less comfortable one? Despite your good intentions ('Come on in!'), you're inadvertently telling him to watch his step around you," caution Detert and Burris.
What to try instead
So instead of an "open-door" policy, actively go ask your people for their thoughts. "If you ask for input frequently and hold the conversations face-to-face, idea sharing will feel less ominous and more natural," claim the authors, who report that this small change can make a remarkably huge difference.
"Soliciting feedback informally can be much more effective than just being open to it when it comes your way. In our study of financial institutions, we found that proactively reaching out to subordinates for suggestions increased employees' willingness to speak up twice as much as simply being open did," they report.
Of course, getting out of your office and asking for feedback isn't enough. The complete article is chock full of other suggestions, including specifying what type of feedback you're after (so as to avoid your team telling you about things you don't have the time or power to fix) and most importantly, actually acting on at least some of what they tell you.
"Be sure to adopt at least one idea or solve at least one problem that was mentioned, letting everyone know who deserves the credit for bringing it up," advise the authors. Otherwise, your team will quickly identify your new initiative as window dressing and revert back to keeping their mouths shut.