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.
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.