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Does the UK need a more positive approach to open door policies?

In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson’s leadership has been strongly scrutinised by the press with critics accusing him of mixed messaging and omission of key data sets.

Similarly, in May, public outcry was caused when it came to light that his most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, had left his home during lockdown when his family was infected by the virus.

Addressing queries about his consultation with the prime minister over his decision, Cummings said in a statement: “I did not ask the prime minister about this decision […]

"Every day, I have to exercise my judgment about things like this and decide what to discuss with him. Arguably, this was a mistake, and I understand that some will say that I should’ve spoken to the prime minister before deciding what to do.”

What’s striking about Cummings’ statement is what it suggests about the state of leadership in UK government: that the line of communication with the prime minister and colleagues is not as clear as it ought to be, suggesting that ministers may not be able to ask for guidance when they need it and an open-door policy is lacking.

As many HR leaders will know, an effective open-door policy promotes transparency and allows leadership to be aware of what challenges it is facing on the ground. Transparency helps leaders to build trust with employees, and the better the trust, the more an employee gives back to an organisation.

As neuroeconomist Paul J Zak’s research and other studies have found, employees working in high-trust environments are more productive, more collaborative, have more energy, and stay with companies longer than those in low-trust organisations.

They are also less likely to suffer from stress or illness, therefore taking time off work. Throughout the pandemic, and in the recovery from it, every organisation could benefit from the strength that open leadership brings to their people.

Too much and not enough

Tom Cassidy, head of executive coaching at Working Voices, argues that when it comes to open-door policy in the time of a pandemic, the implication for leadership is a fascinating one.

Summarising the quandary that employees find themselves in, he says: “At times of crisis, people find it easy to think that the leader is too busy to bother them with decisions.

"They perhaps also assume that they should be entrusted to make the right judgement call given the culture of the organisation. This creates a minefield of understanding in what to pass across their desk and what to make a call on yourself.”

Perspectives around open-door policies differ, however. For Edward Rivlin, head of UK&I consulting delivery at HR consultancy SHL, new communication methods may lead to leaders becoming overwhelmed with a ‘wide open-door policy’.

Rivlin says: “In a world of open-plan offices and remote working, leaders are rarely able to hide behind closed doors – and nor should they want to. The opportunity to engage with employees at different levels, to demonstrate they are approachable and available to help, to be able to resolve problems ‘just-in-time’ – all intuitively feel positive behaviours for leaders to demonstrate.

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However, this comes at a cost. Continual distractions and interruptions reduce leaders’ productivity, and the quality of responses employees get to their ad-hoc queries are often inconsistent depending on what else the leader may be concerned with at the time.”

An open-door policy for Rivlin can also be a passive approach to leadership, leaving the onus on employees to actively make their approach.

He adds: “An ‘always on’ leader risks creating a dependency culture for those more forward, more needy or more personally comfortable with them and conversely risks disengaging those less inclined to approach.”

Striking the balance

From Cassidy and Rivlin’s point of view, effective open leadership is achieved by striking the balance between ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’.

As Cassidy puts it, this is a balance between the traditional approach where the leader is always available, and the more modern day approach that says leaders are there to provide strategic guidance rather than to get deeply involved with the day-to-day running of the business.

From an operational point of view, Rivlin suggests that leadership should introduce regular, scheduled touchpoints with employees such as weekly one-to-ones, quarterly development reviews or ad hoc discussions with an assigned buddy or mentor. This also avoids leaving the onus on the employee to speak up to leadership.

He says: “Leaders who actively prioritise these sorts of strategies will empower others in the organisation and reduce reliance on their availability.”

In fast moving situations, like the coronavirus pandemic, top-down methods of decision making are also typically too slow to respond. Similarly, Cassidy poses the idea that leadership has a “copper-wire connector between teams who know what the best course of action is.”

He says: “An open-door policy needs to be backed up with real action because of the confusion it can cause. Open dialogue with the top team is critical.

"Leaders must take clear steps to open discussion about agreeing what is important and what is not, before difficult decisions need to be taken. Doing so in a way that is warm and does not shame those making the effort to raise the question.”

Check back tomorrow for part two of this feature, which is included in our July/August 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.