My husband and I owned and operated a commercial farm for thirteen years, and we had an “open door policy”.  There are a hundred different ways to die on a farm, so we insisted and relied on our workers to tell us when anything, ANYTHING, was out of place, not working right, seemed unsafe, or was confusing. Day or night. Whether they fixed it or not. Whether it pertained to their job or not.

I had no idea what being truly “tired” and “overwhelmed” meant, and I definitely didn’t understand the true cost of food, until I was a livestock farmer.  You start work in the dark, and you end work in the dark. There are no days off, and there is no “slow season”. Your to-do list always gets longer no matter how hard you work.  I’ve not met a single farmer whose house was clean, or who didn’t have at least one adult in the household also working off the farm to keep the balance sheet in the green.  I learned some of my toughest leadership lessons, suffered some of life’s greatest heartbreaks, and experienced some of my greatest joys, as a farm owner.

We had short team meetings with our workers almost every day, sometimes twice a day depending on the season. We asked how things were going, outlined the tasks for the day, highlighted anything urgent (pro tip for anyone who romanticizes farming: between livestock, fences, and heavy equipment, there are ALWAYS at least ten urgent things to deal with every day on a farm), and made time for questions and concerns.

Still, many, many workers would not tell us if something was amiss. While no human being ever died on our farm (thank God), this lack of communication did result in a couple of accidents requiring trips to the ER, animals dying, and very costly repairs which could have been avoided if tended to sooner.

Hats off to the workers brave enough to tell us after the fact why they didn’t speak up. Here’s what they said:

“You just seem so overwhelmed. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“You have so much on your plate already I figured it could wait.”
“You’re pretty unapproachable. You seem angry or stressed a lot.”

There you have it, folks. We had an open-door policy, but most people were not willing to walk through that door due to what they would find once they did.

Here’s the leadership lesson I learned (then forgot, then relearned, then forgot, then relearned …):

Your vibe MATTERS. Regulating your nervous system as a leader MATTERS. Nobody’s coming to talk to you if you’re a stress case. It’s not safe. Or enjoyable.

If you let everyone know they can come talk to you anytime, but then don’t create an emotionally safe space for them, you’ve turned into this very confusing sign I spotted at my local ski hill over the weekend: “Open to public. NO ENTRY.”