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It’s impossible to lead effectively if you don’t have an open line of communication with your team members.

From ample experience gained through coaching executives and soon-to-be executives, I’ve learned that many leaders talk about their “open door policy” and willingness to receive frank feedback, while their actions and body language say something completely different.

Here’s some of the feedback I receive on bosses with alleged “open door” policies:

Her door is open. The last person to walk thru it had their head handed to them on a platter. We just walk on by these days.

Every time I raise a suggestion, he gets defensive and ends up trying to convince me of his point of view.

His words tell me that he appreciates feedback on how he can improve. His facial reactions told me otherwise.

When I offer her ideas, she tells me immediately what’s wrong with them.

Our CEO made a point at the company meeting of encouraging more input on what was working and what wasn’t. He seemed genuinely interested in my ideas, but I have no idea what happened to them.

All of the managers above are stifling the free-flow of communication on their teams with their poor and almost but not quite involuntary habits. What’s a manager to do?

6 Ideas to Help Your Team Open Up to You:

1. Assess: am I giving my team members ample reasons to trust me. The absence of trust shuts down the flow of communication. If you’re new to leading the team, your team members may not have enough evidence to form a strong opinion about your trustworthiness. While earning credibility and trust is a long-term activity, daily focus on the following actions will help jump-start the process:

  • Give trust to get trust. Instead of making people walk on hot coals to earn your trust, try extending it first. Most people will climb mountains and ford fast-moving streams to show that your trust in them is well placed.
  • Back your words with actions. The do must match the tell. Every day.
  • Show that you care about your team members. Offering coaching and providing access to professional development opportunities are great ways to show that you care.
  • Never compromise on treating people with respect no matter how challenging the circumstances.

2. Admit: I need frank feedback and the best ideas and insights of my team members to succeed at my job. While it sounds a bit cliché the first step is for you to genuinely believe it.

3. Get help, because you’re going to fail to model the behaviors necessary to open the flow of communication. Find a “feedback buddy” who will observe you in action and provide quick, frank and actionable commentary on your performance as a communicator (giver and receiver). Ask him/her to monitor both your verbal and non-verbal responses as well as to observe how your team members react to you. None of us are unbiased judges of our own communication effectiveness. A great “feedback buddy” is priceless.

4. Align your behaviors with your stated intent. It’s difficult in some situations to resist critiquing the ideas of your team members. Instead of suggesting what’s wrong with their ideas, ask questions that encourage them to think through and around the entire issue. If you advocate an open-door policy, when someone walks thru your door, push away from the keyboard and focus all of your attention on the individual. Give up your need to occupy all of the air-time or prove you are the smartest person in every meeting. All of these are credibility killers that suppress open communication.

5. Don’t hide your weaknesses. If you make a mistake, admit it. If you’re working on strengthening your coaching skills, share this with your team. Your willingness to open up about your own challenges and growth activities will help relax the tension on other challenging topics.

6. Do something. People grow tired of sharing ideas or offering feedback if the input doesn’t go anywhere. Ask clarifying questions and try one of the following variations of the same question to move things forward. Ask: “How do you propose I tackle this issue?” Or, “How do you propose to tackle this issue?” If you make a commitment to do something, live up to this commitment. If you are empowering your team member to tackle the issue, offer your support but let them run with it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Speed of learning and agility to adapt are essential for survival and success in our fast-changing world. It takes timely input and an open flow of communication on the tough issues—including your performance—to generate learning and to succeed with innovation. If the communication isn’t flowing your way, or, what you are hearing is mostly saccharine sweet, chances are the problem is staring back at you in the mirror.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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