My Door is Always Open - But Not if There's a Problem

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In my observation of leaders in action, I see some fantastic behaviors and excellent processes all of which contribute to strong and effective leadership.

Sometimes I see that; sadly, not as often as I should. Instead, I see actions and reactions which erode and weaken the leader’s position and the respect which others – often, critically, those they are leading – have for them.

One of the behaviors I’ve observed, more and more in the last few months, is what I call leadership avoidance.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Even in an era of open-plan offices or ‘pods’, managers and leaders will assure their subordinates and others that “My door is always open.” Sounds good and some leaders are genuine in offering that support should a staff member need to discuss an issue of concern.

But there are occasions when the door, even metaphorically, is not open. Recently, an employee told me of a problem with a co-worker. And it was clear that the employee relating the story to me had been upset by the incident. The manager, who observed this as he was heading off to a meeting, advised this person that he would call him later to discuss the incident.

Despite the manager / subordinate relationship, they didn’t physically work in the same office. That, of course, can present problems unless handled carefully.

Two days later the staff member called the manager and politely reminded the manager of his promise to ‘call later’.

The manager’s response to this clearly indicated his lack of leadership skills:
“I didn’t say when !” He then compounded this already poorly handled situation by saying that he thought the employee was emotional as a result of the incident so chose to give him space.

What he did, in fact, was to disengage. Rather than address the issue and the employee’s feelings, he chose ‘avoidance’.  Managers sometimes justify this withdrawal by saying that ‘the problem will go away’.

Rarely does it go away. What happens instead is that resentment is built up in the employee towards the manager, the manager who ‘didn’t care’, ‘didn’t support’ but because of his own inability to manage the emotions of others, avoided engaging in the issue.

Often leadership avoidance occurs because of the manager’s insecurities and so he or she chooses to leave the door to his office open – but the office is vacant 0r the manager is simply ‘too busy’ to engage with the employee seeking help.

Manager’s insecurities can lead to avoidance behaviors in other areas as well. Performance appraisals are avoided – or at best, brief and positive rather than being directed at the employee’s development.

They can also avoid the simple action of giving less than positive news on outcomes. This can be not only towards their on teams, their peers and other stakeholders. When this avoidance occurs with external stakeholders the business outcomes and the companies reputation can suffer.

All because the so called ‘leader’ chooses to not respond to phone calls and emails from the other party afraid, perhaps, that they are unable to manage what may be a negative outcome for the other person. They may try to take the view that they are ‘above’ responding, or that they are simply too busy to deal with this interaction.

Leadership requires strength and also an awareness of the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, many leaders avoid dealing with this for themselves.

And that becomes Leadership Avoidance in action.

 

Graham Moore