After several years as a family therapist, I got a promotion in my organization. For the first time, I would be leading a team, which got me a free ticket to the Human Resources boot camp for managers. Designed to prepare me for my new organizational role, it was a crash course in the current conventional wisdom around leadership. One particularly juicy leadership gem, delivered to me by trainers with all the confidence in the world, was that a great leader always has an open door.
An open door? That was easy. Not only was I going to have an Open-Door Policy, I was going to ace it! I hustled down to the gift shop at the health center where I worked and bought a doorstop to make a visible and decorative point: I’d have the most outstanding open door in the organization.
The Open-Door Policy did exactly what it was supposed to do. Soon team members began popping their heads into my open door.
“Do you have a minute?” they asked. “Sure, I have two!” I’d reply. “Come on in.”
It didn’t take long to realize that these people were liars. They’d ask for a minute or two, but they stayed planted in my office for an average of 45 minutes.
Now, if they had really needed me—to talk through a critical decision for serving the business or to help them develop or hone skills— the time investment would have had a satisfying payoff. But people weren’t coming to me for that.
People came in to tattle on others. They wanted to tell me stories about things that had happened only in their heads. Or they’d vent about circumstances that couldn’t be changed (what I call reality). They’d use our time to spin fantasies about a dismal or doomed future. Frequently, it was a combination. I spent the majority of these impromptu “Got a minute?” meetings listening to elaborate narratives that had almost no basis in reality.
The kicker? At the end of the meeting, they would say to me, with a straight face: “Please don’t do anything about this. I just wanted you to be aware.”
As I witnessed the economic effect of this Open-Door Policy in action, it made no sense to me. Where was the return on the investment I had made in that doorstop? Can you imagine what would happen if I went to the CEO and said, “I plan to spend 10 hours a day in a series of 45-minute one-on-one meetings talking about stuff that doesn’t add one whit of value to the company. And I’m going to expense the doorstop”? I’d soon be opening the door to the unemployment office.
The HR wisdom that had been drilled into me said having an open door was the right thing to do. It was touted as a best practice that would lead to happy, engaged employees. We had been instructed that we should allow employees to vent, because venting is “healthy.”
During my time as an Open-Door Policy devotee, I don’t recall team members ever tattling on themselves. They weren’t coming to me and saying “You know, I am really having trouble aligning my actions and decision-making with the strategy of this business. I’d like to become more effective at serving our customers. Can you help me develop my skills and work processes so I can meet company goals, add value to the team, and better contribute to return on investment?”
No one came through my open door to directly ask for coaching on handling sticky issues in a more effective, productive, and efficient way. In fact, they drove their bitching, moaning, and whining (BMWs) through the open door and parked with their engines idling, wasting fuel, and polluting the atmosphere. Then they demanded that I withhold the kind of direction and assistance that would help them get where we needed to go.
I realized pretty quickly that the open door was a portal for drama. It catered to ego, fueled feelings of victimhood, and contributed to low morale. Worse, it cost the company a lot of money.
We had been hired for the value we could contribute to the important work we did, not for the ego-based, drama-filled stories we could concoct. I knew my time would be better invested in helping people reflect, increase their self-awareness, and look at situations from a higher level of consciousness.
After this proverbial “aha!” moment, I abandoned the Open-Door Policy. It was one of my first acts of a concept I would later define as Reality-Based Leadership. I didn’t shut the door on my team members, exactly, but I began changing the conversation when they asked for a minute. Instead of passively listening or directing, I began asking questions:
- “What do you know for sure?”
- “What is your part in this?”
- “What are your ideas for resolving this issue?”
- “What are you doing to help?”
When they came to me with narratives about the problems they encountered, I gave them a mental process that forced them to deconstruct their “stories” and move into action. The process shifted their thinking to a focus on the facts. And it asked them to outline proposed solutions or helpful actions that would positively affect the situation.
The above post was a preview excerpt from the Introduction of NO EGO: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results by Cy Wakeman. (Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.)
|Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher, international leadership speaker, and consultant. In 2001, she founded Reality-Based Leadership. She is the author of three books: Reality-Based Leadership: Ditch the Drama, Restore Sanity to the Workplace and Turn Excuses into Results (2010), New York Times bestseller The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace: Know What Boosts Your Value, Kills Your Chances, and Will Make You Happier (2013) and No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results (2017). In 2017, she was named as one of the Top 30 Global Leadership Gurus by Global Gurus, a Top 100 Leadership Expert to follow on Twitter, and was deemed “the secret weapon to restoring sanity to the workplace.” She lives in Waterloo, NE.|