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You may take pride in your open-door policy but that doesn't mean your staff are coming to you with their concerns and ideas. Giving employees a voice requires more than that. Much more.

An open-door policy is intended to signal that everyone is working together, and all ideas are equal. But James Detert, a professor of management at Cornell University, said in an interview that it doesn't work, as it reminds staff of the hierarchy: "The message is, 'Come to me, to my space, in the room I have decorated, while I sit in the big, comfortable chair or behind the desk.' Even if the boss is nice, the conversation is on his turf – and turf matters a lot."

Prof. Detert is fascinated with how to get your employees to speak freely because although we live in a democracy, that freedom ends at the company's front door. People are afraid to speak openly, yet such communication is vital for success.

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It's not just fear. It's also the futility of trying. Staff give up as they have learned their ideas will go nowhere. Indeed, his research, along with Ethan Burris of the University of Texas, suggests more people are blocked by futility than fear. "We hear people say, 'I'm not afraid to speak up, but it's an absolute waste of time,'" Prof. Detert says.

In Harvard Business Review, they shared prescriptions for creating a more vocal culture:

Make feedback regular

You must be more proactive in regularly seeking input. "If you wait for people to make an appointment, it won't work," Prof. Burris said in the interview. "Instead of asking people to knock on your door, you need to knock on their door." He cites a credit union, where the president regularly invites five or six people to lunch, off site. If they come up with an idea to improve the operation, lunch is on the company; otherwise, they all pay their own tab.

Be transparent

Explain what happens after people speak up. Organizations often expend effort getting ideas but never explain what happens afterward – how the idea will be evaluated, whether testing will take place, who ultimately decides, and by when. The professors point to a mid-size company where a six-week plan for gathering and acting on employee ideas in three major areas began. It had three clear phases, explained at the outset: two weeks to collect ideas through an online platform; two weeks for task forces to evaluate the impact of the ideas; and two weeks to prioritize which ideas would be implemented, create timelines, and announce plans.

Reach out

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You want informal ideas, not just formal. The big town halls may be well-intended but they aren't conducive to honest conversation. One manufacturing vice-president told them he saved about a million dollars when, during a plant visit, he veered from the scheduled guided tour to walk the floor by himself. He chatted with front-line employees and one mentioned a flaw in the design of some bubble wrap.

Soften the power cues

One reason that "management by walking around" works – what that vice-president was doing – is because it changes the turf. The boss is on the employees' turf, so they feel somewhat more comfortable. But remember to ditch the $2,000 suit, Prof. Detert advises. And when meetings are held in your office, use a small round desk, where there is no head of the table and everyone is in similar chairs.

Avoid mixed messages

Clarify what type of feedback you want. If you only want feedback on a few key priorities, don't imply you will accept ideas on everything under the sun. You won't really be listening to such ancillary ideas and employee hopes will be dashed.

Set the example

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People won't speak up if their boss doesn't speak up with his bosses. "For most people their direct boss embodies what the organization is," Prof. Detert notes. All the way to the top, candour and seeking feedback must be the norm.

Close the loop

Executives may feel they are too busy to get back to subordinates about what happened to their suggestions. That's a terrible mistake. In surveys of more than 3,500 employees in numerous companies, the academics found that bosses' failure to close the loop increased subordinates' belief that speaking up was futile by 30 per cent.

"For the most part, managers believe that being nice and listening to employees will make them a good 'voice manager.' But you need to be more pro-active and purposeful than that," Prof. Burris concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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