Come on in - the door is open
If something is starting to go wrong in the workplace I want to be the first to hear about it, and preferably at a point where it is still recoverable. In my teams we have a simple philosophy about mistakes - you are allowed to make them. You are allowed to make as many as you need to, so long as you only make each one once. The first time is free, on the single condition that you tell me, or your manager, it has happened. First thing we do is fix it together, and then talk about how it happened and what we need to learn from that.
As a leader there is no point in expecting people around you to be infallible, especially when I know that I make mistakes too. Rather like our good friend Epictetus and his quote about 'its not the event that happened in the past that troubles us, but how we think about that event in the present', with mistakes its not whether or not they happen, its what we do about them when they do. I can only help to fix something if I know its broken, and so I focus on striving for open communication, where colleagues feel they can speak up when they need or want to.
They wish to have open communication, an open door, is beneficial, and it comes with its drawbacks. The open plan office adds to that as you no longer have a door to close. So does sitting at a desk amidst colleagues in the team make you an approachable manager or leader? Well, not in my experience. Firstly there is the communication you share even before you speak. Whether you bother to look up when someone speaks to you, or if you just keep on typing. Whether you greet them with a smile, or a frown. Lets face it, interruptions aren't always welcome, and our faces often express how we feel rather too quickly.
And those seemingly constant interruptions are a source of frustration for many managers and leaders. Boundaries become blurred, deadlines get missed, and stress builds. So how do you achieve that perfect balance? And with more remote working, has the problem gone away, or are we just experiencing 'channel shift'? At this point, I really have to have to have a short rant, on a pet hate. I totally understand, and support, a move to digital by default. It makes sense completely. But, and its a big but, emails are NOT an equal substitute for speaking to an actual person!! Increasing volumes of emails are one of the most common complaints I hear from colleagues feeling overwhelmed and in so many cases, a simple conversation would have been so much more effective. The rise of the keyboard warrior is very unwelcome.
So how do we achieve approachable leader without the downsides of constant interruptions. Well, its not hard, it just takes practice and repetition. Firstly start by talking to your teams about how you want them to communicate. What is it you really want them to tell you? What would you want to be interrupted to hear, and when do you want them to wait until a scheduled time. Do you offer them enough time to talk to you, times that you stick to so that they know you will always be able to speak to them and listen to what they have to say. Having a regular 121 booked, which gets moved more often than it takes place will inevitably lead to them contacting you when the chance arises, rather than waiting.
Make sure that you talk to them about boundaries. "Its not ok to call/text me at the weekend - unless its a personal emergency". Decide what the rules are you want to have, and then make sure that all of your staff know what they are. Make it clear that if you are busy on something really urgent or important you make ask them to wait to speak to you another time, and that you do want to speak to them, its only the timing that is unwelcome. Make eye contact, and make sure that what you are saying is genuine. Being offhand, intentionally or otherwise, can lead to people never approaching you again. Unless that is your intention, then be careful not to communicate that message.
Go out of your way to speak to them. Often colleagues will not feel that what they have to say is important enough to bother you with, so make the time to speak to people, build up a bond of trust, be curious about how they are, and how they are feeling about work. The fine detail of things that may be inefficient, or the start of a problem, can often be hard to spot without you taking the conversation to the team. Make sure they know how you will react if something goes wrong. We have a 'Whoops' protocol for example. I'm usually pretty up to date with emails, but when I've had some leave there can be quite a few in the inbox waiting. If one of my managers requires my urgent attention, they simply put Whoops in the subject line of the email.
Whoops has two main benefits. The first is that anyone not in the know, wouldn't think to address an email this way, so you immediately know its a cry for help from within the teams. And secondly they know it is especially for them, reinforcing the message that they matter to me. I always get to those first, and they know that, building that trusted relationship. After all, I'm only successful in my role, if I enable them to be successful in theirs.
And if you find that colleagues come to you constantly with questions, don't make the mistake of answering them. There are more downsides than benefits to giving people the answers, the benefits all lie in asking them the right questions. Adopt a coaching style of leadership, which will enable them to access your support and challenge them to learn all at the same time. What have you tried already? What do you think we should do next? What other options are there? What hasn't worked, and what did you learn from that?
You'll soon find that when they approach you with their question, that they learn to anticipate what you will ask, and begin to do that thinking for themselves. I've been talking with a client recently about values led leadership, a really enjoyable conversation. If you value your colleagues then you will want to ensure that they can see that in your behaviours. That may leave you feeling that your door must be always open, but with some fine tuning you can increase their sense of working together, and collaboration, by sharing with them boundaries you can both agree on, and still have that essential uninterrupted work time.
If you would like some coaching to develop your leadership style, and communication further then feel free to contact me.