Opening the Door to Better Open Door Policies

Many managers claim to have an open-door policy. They want to be available to their employees. But do they really have an open-door policy, or is it a handy name for a commendable intention? Naomi Karten describes the flaws in open-door policies and offers suggestions for making them work.

Andy, the director of a software department I was visiting, told me proudly during our first meeting, "I have an open-door policy. My staff can come and talk to me any time."

When employees can easily gain access to their managers and count on getting a fair hearing, the entire organization benefits from a culture of trust, open communication, and respect. Furthermore, these accessible managers tend to have employees who are forthcoming both in offering ideas and disclosing problems. But in working with Andy's team and other groups subsequently, I saw that there's sometimes a contradiction between the purported open-door policy and what these managers actually do.

For example:

    • Some managers claim to have an open-door policy, and, indeed, their doors are wide open. But glimpse inside when you pass by and you'll see that they're rarely there. Invariably, there's another meeting, another appointment, another problem that seems to have a higher priority than being available to their staff. These managers want to do right by their employees--as soon as they finish taking care of everything else on their to-do lists.
    • Some managers who profess to have an open door policy are available when employees drop in. Unfortunately, their simultaneous availability to their phone, email, and people poking their head in with "just a quick question" suggests that the door is a little too open. For these managers, no matter is trivial enough to ignore, dismiss, or postpone. I observed one such meeting in amazement as the manager repeatedly interrupted a discussion with two of his employees to tend to one thing and another, seemingly oblivious to the disrespect he was showing them.
    • Some managers apparently interpret "open door policy" to mean simply that an employee can enter at any time. But when an employee comes by with a problem, concern, or idea, these managers arbitrarily dismiss it. Their employees are quick learners; they quickly learn not to even bother. For example, Dean, a project manager, had an excellent idea for addressing some snags the team was facing. When I asked why he didn't present them to Tom, his manager, he grumbled that there was no point since Tom immediately shoots down ideas that aren't his own. Dean's teammates reported similar experiences.
    • Some managers demand that their employees, as one manager put it, "are prepared to propose a solution when they come to me with a problem." In other words, the door is wide open, but don't you dare step through that doorway to report a problem if you can't recommend a solution. I commend these managers for striving to create a staff of independent problem solvers. Unfortunately, these good intentions sometimes discourage employees from seeking help with pressing problems that they don't know how to resolve. Such problems, if left untreated, often pave the way to crises.

And then there was Andy, the software director I visited. Senior management had directed him to convert his department into a profit center. Rather than tackling only projects that clients requested, as had been the case for several years, the department would now have to proactively seek projects from clients and sell the value of the group's services. This was a significantly different business model for the department, but Andy was fortunate; his staff, a very bright bunch, overflowed with ideas about how to carry out this transition. And as Andy had told me, his door was open.

But Andy's passive approach to seeking input exemplified yet another potential flaw in open-door policies. Andy didn't seek out his employees and invite their input; instead, he waited until they came to him. Many

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