Have you ever heard someone say: “I have an open-door policy.”
Perhaps you’re one of those kind of leaders?

The first I heard that phrase, it was from such a nice leader.  He was so kind and dedicated to his staff.  His employees loved him.  Who wouldn’t love 24-7 access! He was accessible and he cared.  I’ve heard plenty of complaints about leaders who were not very accessible. 
You see, I’ve had the privileged position of talking privately, one-on-one with a lot of leaders.  For many years, I was a coach in a multi-hospital context, where I coached over 100 nurse leaders in a 10-year period.  I also coached government leaders, firefighters, grocery store managers, tech company leaders. I could go on. The basic message here is – trust me – I’ve talked to a lot of bosses in a lot of contexts!
Fast forward many years and multiple organizational interventions later and my thinking about open-door policies has changed!  Especially as I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with colleagues like Jane Morley and Gordon White on complex organizational interventions, my reach and perspective has shifted.  
What I’ve learned working with my esteemed colleagues is to take a holistic, systems lens into workplace conflict.  When I look at the organization or a team from a systems perspective, I learned something new about open-door policies and unintended consequences in other parts of the system.
I learned that having an open-door policy was better than a closed door one, but it had its own issues.  It does help to be accessible, but as a leader, if you assume everything is okay unless someone comes to you with a problem – the classic “open door-policy” definition, you have a problem.  An open-door policy becomes more like assuming there is no cavity or plaque building up, because you don’t have a toothache.  If no one complains or comes through your open door, you may believe all is well.

Add to that, it can be challenging to create enough safety for an employee for them to actually give you the feedback you expect.  Most leaders do not realize the impact their positional authority has on stifling the voice of their employees.
While having an open-door policy can signal you care, it also has a great toll on the leader. The ones I spoke with were often stressed as they couldn’t find the time for their own important projects, as their days were fraught with multiple interruptions and fires to put out.
What I realized was that it was the leader who was proactive, who went out to their employees to make connections and to actively ask for feedback, who created the vibrant workplaces. The ones who had open-door policies were often overwhelmed and exhausted as they spent so much time being reactive to problems coming in.
One of my favourite stories about a proactive leader that illustrates the power of feedback and an easy way to collect it, is from my hospital coaching days. 
A leader I was coaching through the hospitals’ leadership program took a one-day course on performance evaluations when we were in the middle of our coaching sessions. He was very excited to tell me about one key take-away from the workshop: that he shouldn’t leave performance evaluations as a once a year affair, but should be having performance enhancing kind of conversations year-round.
Now, he was a busy guy. He supervised over 30 people spread over different hospitals.  But he decided he wanted to have short, 15-minute, conversations with each of his staff, one on one, every two weeks.  He set up the various conversations and then I heard his reportage back.
He was amazed, elated and saddened.  He was amazed and elated because the conversations were so welcome.  Some of his staff said they had never, in their whole careers, been asked for feedback on how they were doing and what they still might need. 
He devised very direct, yet very simple questions like: 
“What’s working well with your area at the moment?”  
“What can I do to help you make your work more wonderful?”
“What am I doing that might be making your job harder (and how can we change that)?”
“What brings you the most satisfaction and joy in your work?”
The part that saddened him, in addition to being told that some of his staff had never been asked for feedback of any sort, is that some of his staff burst into tears at even being asked!  It was obviously a powerful thing to do.
My coaching with this leader eventually ended, but the whole time we were coaching together, I would continue to hear how his putting aside a short 15 minutes regularly for proactive feedback conversations made such a big impact.  
What is your sense of responsibility for your staff and, most telling, for conflict in your area?  Do you see conflict as your problem when you find out about it amongst the ranks, or do you see it as their problem?  Or, most problematic, do you wish they would “just grow up and play nice in the sandbox” (a phrase that is a red flag to me)?
Do you see yourself as responsible for your part in any conflict and responsible for helping your people get the skills and support they need to move forward through conflict?  This is the idea of servant leadership – to see our staff as under our care.  The best leaders have the biggest hearts!  This doesn’t mean these are the leaders who are trying to make everyone happy.  But it also isn’t the leaders who don’t care either.  My hospital leader coaching client made feedback normal.
The best leaders are the ones who fiercely care and take full responsibility for knowing what’s happening in their workplaces, through creating feedback rich workplaces. As Executive Coach Ed Batista says: “If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.”