Fear will infect your workplace if you let it. It's a natural outgrowth of the power imbalance between employer and employee, especially when the economy is tough. Fear is an invisible force that can tank your profits. It sucks away productivity and replaces it with politics. It smothers innovation and replaces it with timidity. It repulses top talent. You can't afford fear!

And because the balance of power is on the employer's side, the employer is the only one who can take this toxic workplace emotion out of the equation. But many companies try to address this reality in a very ineffective way. They tell all of their employees, "We have an open door policy here!"

But the open door policy is not a quick fix for fear. In the eyes of your employees, it's one of those throwaway buzzwords that management uses all the time, but never means.

Remember what it was like to be an employee.

Take a moment to think about the kind of foolishness and abuse employees probably dealt with in other companies. They've been lied to. They've been shot down when they've tried to speak up. They've been promised one pay rate and given another, much lower pay rate. They've been timed when they go to the bathroom. The list goes on and on.

Is it any wonder they get that strained smile when they hear, "We've got an open door policy here?" All of those companies said the same thing.

Don't talk about your open door policy. Demonstrate it.

Since they've heard it all before, we have to stop saying it. It's time to adopt the author's maxim: show, don't tell.

I want my employees to feel like they have some sort of control over how and when they choose to do their work. They're talented adults, and once I've made my expectations clear I want to treat them that way.

On their first day in the office, I don't bother to say the words "open door policy." Instead, we sit down and discuss expectations and the work hours. Then I ask them to use that information to set their own schedules. All I ask is that they abide by the schedules they set.

This gives them the ability to give me fear-free input from Day 1. I then mention that I'd like to know about it if they feel stressed, overwhelmed, or burned out. If they feel they need tools or support to do their jobs, then I would like to know that information as well. I explain that I understand that work is dynamic and that at times they may need to shift responsibilities, adjust the schedule, or receive additional support.

That is, after all, what an open door policy is mostly supposed to cover, but now I've given the words real weight and real meaning by actually demonstrating how it works. The employee walks out of that conversation confident that I mean what I say, because he's holding on to a schedule that he created. I've also already acknowledged, from day one, that burnout does happen, and that I don't expect him to be some sort of superhuman individual who always gives 120 percent.

Get outside of your office.

You don't have to talk about your open door policy in order to initiate one. You can create a better one by turning the whole concept on its head. Don't tell employees to feel free to walk into your office. Instead, free yourself to walk out of it.

Spend time out on the floor visiting various people at their work stations. Ask them how things are going. Ask them about their challenges and frustrations and listen to their answers. Act on some of the best suggestions that you hear. In time it will become clear that you are genuine, and you're not just out there to micromanage or catch them at something. The culture of trust will catch on, and in time, new employees will settle down sooner because your older ones will be reassuring them that you're trustworthy.

Then, you can all get on with pulling together toward your shared goals, which is how a team is supposed to operate in the first place.

Published on: Sep 9, 2014