Melanie Steel, founder and owner of People Change Expertise, argues that to do this, colleagues should be considered on similar terms to friends.
She says: “The reality is that human relationships require the same type of ingredients regardless of whether they are professional or personal ones.”
These ‘ingredients’, according to Steel, are trust and honesty, communication, appreciation, sharing, respect and empathy.
She adds: “In my experience, the best leaders are those that show an interest in the whole person both on a professional and personal level. This usually leads to a greater openness and a willingness to share when things aren’t going to plan in their professional or personal life.”
This kind of culture must also be built from the ground-up. Steel adds: “It isn’t something that can just be turned on during a crisis as we have recently seen play out in the media.”
As an example, Zurich UK actively seeks to break down traditional ways of working and has, according to head of HR Steve Collinson, eradicated potential ‘ivory towers’ within the business.
Collinson says: “It’s not so much about physical open doors, it’s about creating a culture to make everyone comfortable enough to approach senior management with their ideas and opinions.”
Technology can be a useful tool in creating this culture. Zurich UK employees use Workplace by Facebook for more social communication with senior management, and uptake has been positive with at least eight out of 10 UK employees using the platform.
“It’s crucial senior business leaders really listen to employees. The grapevine is not an effective way to do this as the information becomes distorted. If you don’t listen to people from the bottom up, leadership decisions could be poorly informed. This applies to all business areas, if you don’t listen to those at the coalface of the function then you can’t run your business effectively,” Collinson says.
In another example, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) encourages open dialogue through regular Q&As with senior leadership – which is open to attendance by employees at any level of the organisation.
LSHTM HRD Kessar Kalim, this month’s profile (p24), endeavours to ensure employee queries are aired in the right forum, for example at union meetings. He says: “I think an open door policy is really helpful, but it shouldn’t be the only tool. Having regular dialogues that staff groups, unions and management attend together – that’s really important.”
Collinson agrees, adding: “Making dialogue with consultation groups more frequent and talking about less typical topics can bring a leap forward in discussion and listening. There are other dimensions to listening too – build listening forums based around many dimensions such as physical location, business area, organisation level, career stage. This gives you a multi-dimensional voice from the employees and you can tackle things that are specific to one dimension and many people.”
Responsible, effective and psychological leaders
Caitlin McDonald is a digital anthropologist at research and advisory firm Leading Edge Forum. Applying leadership theory developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne, McDonald describes the concept of the ‘Responsible’, ‘Effective’ and ‘Psychological’ leaders within an organisation.
The Responsible leader is the designated, titled person who bears official responsibility, the managing director or CEO. The Effective leader, by contrast, is one who has typically been working in a business for a long time and is good at knowing how to cut the red tape around any issues. Further still, the Psychological leader is the go-to person within a company and has genuine, rather than simply mandated, followers.
For Berne, and McDonald in turn, the added challenge for leading openly is aligning each of these types, particularly the Responsible and Psychological categories. She explains: “Rarely, if ever, is one single person able to fulfil all three of these roles, especially in large organisations. This is important when considering how an open-door policy might play out in practice. The Responsible leader may genuinely be open to hearing from their teams, but unless they are also perceived as the Psychological leader, they might find nobody actually comes through the door.
“Rather than perceiving this as a threat, this can be an opportunity for the Responsible leader to gain insight into organisational currents of information and power by allowing the trusted Psychological leader to act as a conduit for this information.
“If there is rivalry or tension between [them], no matter how well disguised, this will spiral out into the organisation and cause bigger ripples of conflict further down.”
Bringing in the core tenets of effective communication, culture change and finding the right balance, McDonald says: “Businesses thinking about instituting an open-door policy might do well to re-frame the issue: a doorway has two directions, and it’s just as important for leadership to get out among their teams as it is for individuals to seek out leaders.”
In 2019, she undertook an extensive, nearly year-long study into how digital technologies are changing our workspaces: our physical workspaces, our virtual workspaces, and the ‘headspace’ we use both to do our individual work and to collaborate with each other.
She adds: “One of the standout insights from our research came from a chief information officer
who was describing why he liked working in the office canteen for part of each day: “What I achieve, I achieve through others. Therefore, I like to be seen and make myself available… I cannot lead from behind a closed door.”