"My door is always open" – we’ve all heard management use this phrase to mean that they’re approachable and willing to talk whenever you need. But who is the target audience for that open door? Is it really everyone? Should the target be only those willing to walk through the door, or should it be those who feel their voices are often ignored and could use the support of those who are endowed enough to have an office door to keep open? I feel it should be for the latter, and, as such, though well intended in its mission, the "open door policy" doesn't work.
The Purpose of The Policy
Let’s get to the purpose of the "open door" policy. In my opinion, the purpose is to make yourself accessible to the people who really need you to be. You want to show that you care about what everyone has to say, and that people can bypass any chain of command or supervisor to get to you, their champion. It's targeted at neither the people you talk with every day nor those you’ve worked with for 15 years; rather, it's usually for the people whose voices are quiet but the substance of their message is impactful. The people you would be willing to change policy or procedures for because they bring up a side of the equation that you didn’t originally consider. It's the growing leaders of the company that are only a few years removed from college but have no bounds on their imagination for the company’s future. It's those who are in tune with the current culture and climate and can lend advice on employee priorities and effective messaging.
THOSE are the people this policy is trying, but failing, to serve!
Why It Doesn't Work
On its surface, the policy seems logical, and it really is a commendable thought. I have no doubt this approach occasionally produces a "win". However, this policy puts all the responsibility of engagement on the individual. It's up to the individual to feel that what their commentary or current situation has become dire enough to bypass their direct supervisor and poke their head inside that open office door. The policy may work with direct reports, if there is enough trust established between the reports and the supervisor, but remove just one layer from the direct reporting structure and there’s a decrease in the number of people walking through that door to bring their issues to upper management, until it's too late.
What Should We Do Instead?
We need more than an open door; we need open minds, open ears, and open dialogue. The open door is that car parked by the curb with the handwritten "FOR SALE" on it. Sure, maybe someone stops by, but it’s the person who was already actively searching for a car. Managers, leaders, supervisors, those with or without office doors: we must make more of an effort to ensure we're the ones walking out the proverbial "open door", and engaging our people! How do we implement this action? This list includes ideas I’ve researched or seen in action around my own workplace:
Comments & Suggestions Box: This could be as simple as a Google (anonymous survey). The key here is taking action on the suggestions, and making it known.
Coffee/Breakfast/Lunch with Leadership: Monthly small group sessions with open discussion topics and plenty of Q&A.
Random One-on-Ones: Reserve multiple times on your calendar a week, and just ping someone and see if they would like to grab coffee or lunch that day.
Open Challenge Statements: Are you being asked to make a decision on behalf of the team you manage? Instead of weighing only your own opinion, pose the problem to the team with minimal restrictions and see what creative ideas they can come up with. Work to implement at least a version of their ideas.
Town-Hall-Style Discussions: This is great when a larger corporate change happens. Be sure you're not messaging the new change at the discussion. Give the participants time to do some homework ahead of time, so they can come prepared.
Be Seen & Be Social: Walk the office, eat your lunch in the common areas, stop and chat along the way.
Spoiler: The secret to being approachable is appearing approachable.
I Ask Two Things of You Today:
Consider the purpose of the open door policy again. Is your answer "to make yourself accessible to the people who really need you to be"? If so, Implement one or two of the ideas in the list above and see which approach gets you more interaction with your team and company overall. Was it working away in your office with your door open, or was it proactively reaching out to your coworkers to invest in their growth and ideas?
I challenge you to use a supervisor’s "open door policy" to have a conversation about the core of this article. Ask them how often people use their policy or what their own purpose is to having one. If you feel it's appropriate, recommend they implement an idea or two from this article to better engage their team.
I'm not saying shut the door. I'm saying make sure you're not implementing the open door policy to check a box, because that won’t cut it. You need to do more. You need to ensure you're putting mechanisms in place that give everyone a voice and give you time to listen to that voice. So let's do away with the open door policy, and, instead, embrace its true purpose.
Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.