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 of Andy's staff members weren't reluctant to speak their minds to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Others, however, held back--not because of a lack of ideas, but rather due to a reluctance to present them to him.

This reluctance is not an isolated situation. For many employees, the very notion of proactively approaching their superiors is a gulp-inducing experience. Maybe they lack self-confidence. Maybe they've had past experiences in which their ideas were shot down. Whatever their reasons, these people hold back.

Yet, people who are hesitant to present their ideas sometimes have ideas well worth hearing, as was the case in Andy's department. After one of my visits, Emily, a member of the department, sent me a lengthy email message in which she described her thoughts about transitioning to the new business model. Emily's ideas were astute, articulate, and on target. "But," she wrote in her message, "I haven't presented these ideas to Andy for the simple reason that he has never asked."

Clearly, she should have taken the initiative. But that's just the point--she should have, but she didn't, and she wouldn't. And she is just one of many people who refrain from presenting their ideas to management because, for one reason or another, they are not comfortable initiating the dialogue. Instead, they wait for an explicit invitation.

Rather than merely claiming to have an open door policy, managers who truly want to hear from their employees should consider proactive measures. For example, they might occasionally exit their office, not just to race to the next meeting, but to go out to employees to see what's on their minds. Managers can also establish fixed office hours for employees, schedule periodic one-on-ones with them, and follow up with them regarding issues raised during their conversations. And when an employee comes through their open doorway with a valid concern, they should focus their attention exclusively on that individual.

In fact, sometimes shutting the door to prevent interruptions and distractions is the best way to implement an open door policy.

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