I had a boss who repeatedly told people he had an “an open door policy.” Professing openness when a staff is in fear made me wonder and reflect back to my days in a marketing class. One technique in marketing to overcome a negative perception is to simply claim the opposite is true. Establish the message you want and repeat it several times. The professor provided the example of laundry detergents. Each product claims to get your clothes whiter than the other. However, most testing reveals that they are essentially equal. He felt it was even possible to predict campaigns. He noted that banks had the perception of being too big and standoffish. He predicted we would see campaigns to highlight banks as friendly institutions that care about the local neighborhood.
I have had bosses who want to be drinking buddies with workers. This is not just a bad idea, but lacks the foundation in reality. Bosses must set an example, and how you do this is up to you. There are many types of bosses and each has their own leadership style. Touting an open door policy has little meaning to staff that is controlled by threats, intimidation and retaliatory practices. I have been on crews, staffs and even the boss in my career. I have my style of leadership and I own it. For better or worse, it is a style that I feel comfortable with. I am also not without criticism and I try to work on my shortcomings as a leader.
The term “open door” policy is kind of a buzz word that is popular today. I suspect this is why people wonder why an employee or worker did not simply go to the boss and express any concerns or dissatisfaction. This leads some to believe the story must then be false. I have seen that scenario and the employee did not speak up, because the staff knew what the boss would do with any complaint—particularly if it was about him. We knew of past examples when employees said something and were essentially black-balled from the industry. Threating a person’s livelihood is a very big hammer. Even if you have never seen one, there are bosses out there that are retaliatory, vindictive and relentless. Any negative remark that is seen as a threat to their authority or leadership, must and will be stopped. Some bosses may even appear to be sympathetic and proclaim to the employee that they care and will handle it. What they really mean, is that they will handle you. I have found that some of the most outspoken leaders on the “open door” policy were in fact the worst to approach. We wonder why people with past issues just didn’t just speak up, but it can be impossible when you see retaliation. I have seen paybacks that resulted in divorce and homes lost. The message to the remaining staff was clear.
I try to show that I am open door boss. It must be working as my staff tends to feel pretty comfortable in telling me about the mistakes I make. Apparently, I make a few more than I thought. Construction does not lend itself to open door policies. We want tougher leaders. This style just doesn’t go with the territory. General contractors and developers will eat up and spit out soft contractors. Specialty subcontractors just want results; they must get bid production results just to survive. I am sure they sit in seminars by inspirational leaders and think this team building approach is a shot at something new. They may even give it a try. But it is a risky plan, and if you had your personal assets on the line, wouldn’t you stick with what has worked in the past? I think most want to lead by inspiration, creativity with commitment to openness, but realize it is a gamble.
I sat in many such seminars on leadership and how we can improve ourselves as leaders, be more open to staff and encourage creativity. It was ironic that I would occasionally attend these seminars with my self-proclaimed “open door” policy boss. I wondered what he thought. One day I decided to ask what he thought of the seminar. He was certain he was that type of leader and this class was for others. He continued to explain his own leadership style, and I asked questions. He replied, “I have told you I have an open door policy; you see that is your problem: you don’t listen.” I got the message and dropped the issue. I would suggest young people be careful of bosses who strongly and repeatedly claim they have an open door policy. That might just be clever marketing.