Rethinking the "Open Door" Policy

I’m not sure exactly when it started – the 80’s maybe? – but the idea of having an “open door policy” has become pretty ubiquitous.  It seems like any manager who dares to close their door when not in a meeting must be unapproachable and closed off.  However, saying “my door’s always open” is not necessarily helping you and your team to be more successful.  It doesn’t result in the upward communication that you need, and it impedes your productivity in ways you may not even realize. 

No news is not necessarily good news when you're a manager.

Jason Fried addresses the first problem in his column for Inc magazine [link].  He points out that by telling employees that your door is open, you are putting the onus on them to interrupt you and bring things to your attention.  That means you’ll hear from certain people, but not necessarily the people you need to hear from, on the issues you need to hear about.  Research shows that people instinctively feel hesitant to bring up negative issues to their boss, sometimes out of fear of negative career repercussions, but also oftentimes out of fear of damaging the relationship.  Even though you say your door is open and that you want to hear from your employees, how often is it actually happening?  The open door approach may also unintentionally favor the extroverts on your team and cause you to miss out on important input from other members of the team.

You may be "pre-interrupting" yourself.

The other downside of an open door policy is that you are constantly on alert for interruptions, which makes it difficult to focus on anything more complicated than responding to e-mail or jumping from task to task.  Even if no one actually comes to your doorway, the possibility that they could at any moment means that you hesitate to get started on anything substantive.  You lose the opportunity to carve out deep thinking time for yourself.  It’s even worse for introverts to not have the opportunity to shut the door occasionally and recharge their mental batteries. 

What you do is far more important than the state of your door.

So, what’s the answer?  If you truly want meaningful upward communication and to be productive, then you will need to be intentional and consistent in asking employees for information, and then responding to what they tell you.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Implement an anonymous survey to gather input from employees on how things are going, how clear the strategic goals are, what’s getting in their way, etc.  Make sure you report out the results to your employees and respond to the feedback.  You don’t have to do something about everything they mention, but you at least need to respond and let them know why you’re not.
  • Ask specific questions as part of your regular one-to-one meetings with each employee.  (You do have those, right?)  You could ask about specific aspects (“How is the interaction with Department X going?”  “What would help you in moving forward on this?”) or ask for Stop/start/Continue (more tips on upward feedback here).
  • Be open about things you’ve noticed about yourself that you think are getting in the way of the team’s success and make a commitment to changing them.  This will show the team that you’re comfortable with talking about weaknesses and mistakes and that you know you’re not perfect. 
  • Have certain times when you close your door to focus on strategic tasks, and communicate to your team ahead of time why you’re doing it and that they should hold any non-emergency communications until afterward.  Make sure that you also have times that you are in your office with the door open, and let the team know that it’s okay to pop in.

The irony is that if you follow these strategies, you won't need to say anything about the status of your door.  Your employees will know that you value their input and will share it accordingly.  Not only will you get more done, but you'll also help them accomplish more by making it okay to close their office doors occasionally (metaphorically speaking - many people don't have office doors these days).

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