When speaking with or interviewing other leaders and managers, I’ll sometimes hear someone proudly state that they have an open door policy. This is one of those statements that are meant to sound positive and make the speaker seem approachable but I’m not sure that this is always the case. Don’t get me wrong, the intent behind this notion is positive and worth understanding, but my sense is that if you’re bragging about the “policy” and not the results, something may be amiss.
To start with, for many of us in a leadership position, stating “I have an open door, come in any time!” is easier said than done. Our jobs as leaders and managers often requires us to be heads down in a problem, spend time in deep strategic thinking, and to fill our calendars with planned interactions. Given that, how easy is it for your team to actually find time with you? Can people really walk in throughout the day and chat?
Also, how comfortable are your people in taking up your time? Role power will naturally make people hesitant to speak to you no matter how much you tout your open door. Even people who are naturally approachable can suffer from this as people in your teams might feel that no matter what you say, you are too busy to actually listen to them. And when you have role power it’s really easy to inadvertently imply that you’re too busy.
The next thing to consider is how do you react once people walk in the door and tell you something you don’t want to hear? If you are dismissive, unreceptive, or even worse, aggressive, how often do you expect people to come back? Do you actively listen and even empathize? Do you just nod your head, say “thanks”, and let them walk away? Again due to role power, people may fear the reaction of their leaders for adverse opinions so it takes more than just saying you have an open door to get meaningful input.
I feel that sometimes we as leaders encourage feedback on the belief that we’re mostly going to hear positive things or at worse we'll here about the need for a few minor changes that we already had in mind and the feedback we receive will reinforce it. However, if you’re not truly ready to hear contrary opinions and criticism, be careful what you encourage!
Given the challenges in actually getting people through your door and having meaningful conversations, I have to wonder what claiming an “open door” actually accomplishes. My fear is that all it may accomplish is giving us the illusion of thinking we know what’s going on in our team. It’s easy to claim “no one has come in and complained” and therefore assume everything is fine, but that’s likely not true. Our teams are always talking about something. Us not hearing it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
A Better Way
If we take a step back and look at why someone might have a positively intentioned open door policy, I’d say there are a couple key goals: fostering communication and collaboration, and knowing how your people are doing. Again, I’d offer that simply having an open door or talking about having an open door will not accomplish these goals.
A good leader doesn’t wait for people to come to them. We should actively seek out feedback instead of waiting for it to trickle our way. We need to build trusting relationships so that our people feel like they truly can talk to us. Getting there requires reciprocal transparency. In other words, we can’t expect people to tell us everything on their minds if we keep the reasoning behind all of our decision-making a secret. It requires being able to hear things that make us uncomfortable, that may make us question if we’re actually doing a good job.
Also, depending on the size of your organization, you may need intermediaries that are trusted and can bring information to you. Then if you hear of a problem, don’t just say “let them know they can talk to me”. You’ll run into the same issues associated with an open door: people think you’re too busy (and maybe you are). Instead, make time, seek the people out, and let them know you are interested in learning more.
Put simply, these are the key ingredients to having open communication across your team:
This last point is what makes it the relationship really work. If people see that positive changes come from providing feedback, they are more likely to speak up again. This is a good thing.
Finally, in an even moderately large organization you’ll need intermediaries, so make sure every team member has a relationship with someone that is trusted and seeking feedback and who will bring concerns they can’t resolve to you.
If we do this right by actively driving open conversations and taking action, instead of saying “I have an open door policy, people can come in any time” we can state that we have a close relationship with our people and can work with mutual transparency to collaborate on even the most difficult issues facing our organization.
I am often asked questions along the lines of “do I need to be an expert in everything that my team knows in order to lead them” and “the development team has more experience than I do, how can I be an authority to them?” In the latter case, it describes a difficult situation where someone with less experience than the bulk of the team members has been promoted to a leadership role. A similar scenario is someone recently added to a team that has been working on a product for years and the newcomer architect, product manager, or project manager has little depth of knowledge. In either scenario, the new leader needs to gain credibility in order to be effective or risk being undermined by the team. More broadly speaking, there can be a lot of discomfort in being a newly minted leader trying to tell a team what to do.
And that’s exactly where the problem comes in: we as leaders shouldn’t think our job is telling people what to do.
Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a 19th Century Nova Scotian politician and author, observed that “Wherever there is authority, there is a natural inclination to disobedience”. It sounds a bit like he’s worked in today’s software development teams! In fact, it can be fairly common among knowledge workers in general to question authority and to sound out the depth of a new leader’s knowledge, then use their “superior” knowledge to discredit and / or disobey the leader.
So what’s a new leader to do? For me, the answer forms one of my core principles of leadership:
Leadership is responsibility, not authority
In other words, we as leaders have a responsibility to make our team members succeed, not an authority to make our ideas hold.
This can be a hard lesson. Some seek leadership roles because they believe it’s about authority. And sure, organizational authority is a thing. Authority can come with hierarchy and with depth of knowledge. Role power is real and can be used for good or ill. Indiscriminate use of authority and role power will often not yield durable results, and worse, can’t be used in situations where you don’t actually have hierarchical role power over the people you lead.
Looking back to the question that started this, the architect that first asked me this didn’t have role power over the development team, which is often the case for leaders in flat organizations: the people they lead are matrixed in from other parts of the organization. She also readily admitted to me that she had less experience and technical knowledge than the average team member.
And so the answer to the question “how can I be an authority to them” is often “you can’t, but don’t worry about that.” Being a leader doesn’t mean being the best “doer”, it means being a leader. So instead of trying to wield authority, I’d encourage you to tell the team you’re leading simply and directly that your responsibility is to help them succeed at their jobs. Get into a dialogue and find out what they need from you to succeed and help them help you by giving you what you need to succeed. For example:
It takes a little humility to approach leadership this way and perhaps even some rethinking of your role, but if you see leadership as a responsibility to help others succeed and take that responsibility seriously, you’ll be one of the best leaders your team has ever had.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.