If not done right, an open-door policy can cause more harm than good (and it’s not always as effective as we think it is).
The idea of having an open-door policy is great on the surface – it ideally shows trust, and collaboration, and encourages improved communication and culture.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Often it doesn’t always encourage the communication we seek, and, done poorly, it can waste people’s time, hurt productivity, and lower the effectiveness of employees.
How? And why?
Well, that’s what this article is about. We will discuss why open-door policies don’t always work as we hope, why, if done poorly, they can hurt us, and steps you can take to encourage improved communication and to make your open-door policy more effective.
As a note, some of these ideas and thoughts come from Kevin Kruse in his book Great Leaders Have No Rules. It’s a great read and covers this issue, along with others. He also has written a couple of articles based on this subject that summarize a lot of what he wrote in his book.
Why an open-door policy doesn’t always work (and how it can hurt you)
Employees may not speak up because of fear of retaliation
One reason open-door policies don’t always work is that employees sometimes don’t trust the system.
Yes, it “looks good” for employers to say they have an open-door policy. But what does it sometimes look like for employees? Retribution and retaliation.
They fear speaking up about a situation because, if they do, then they will be retaliated against.
They may see it as, “Yes, open up, so we can get rid of people who complain.”
The open-door policy also puts the burden on the employee to take action (it’s passive)
The open-door policy puts the burden on employees to speak up to share information. For many, if they don’t hear anything from employees, then everything is okay.
That’s now always so.
Having a good open-door policy can be helpful, but management needs to take more proactive steps to learn needed information as well.
Open-door policies can lower productivity
If not set up right, an open-door policy can lower productivity.
If a manager has their door open all the time, interruptions can be frequent, and interruptions destroy productivity.
To be effective and productive, you need to be able to focus single-handedly on your task. Every distraction or interruption pulls you from it and makes you take longer.
One study from the University of California found that the average office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every 3 minutes, and 5 seconds, and, once interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes 15 seconds to get focused back on the task.
Interruptions kill productivity and having an open-door policy that’s open all the time can easily bring that about.
Lower productivity can lead to less individual attention
If the manager is always behind because of constant interruptions, when people stop by, if the manager is feeling stressed or rushed, they will have a harder time giving the other person their full attention on the issue – which hurts the purpose of an open-door policy.
Open-door policies can create extra overwhelm, stress, and work for the manager
If the manager is constantly interrupted, they aren’t as productive and can easily fall behind. When that happens, their overwhelm and stress can easily increase.
Another factor is when employees come up with problems or questions, some managers take it upon themselves to solve the problem or find the information or do whatever to take the next step for the employee.
When that happens repeatedly, it increases the amount of work, and stress, and overwhelms even more.
Open-door policies can create dependency
When the door is always open for employees to stop by and ask questions or get help, it can easily lead to dependency from the employees.
Instead of taking the time to problem-solve or think through a decision, they will just go to the boss.
Instead of deciding and going with it, they always “run it by the boss” first.
This lowers productivity for all involved and also creates dependent, less effective employees.
Open-door policies can lead to jumping the chain of command – and causing issues
Executives opening their doors for anyone to talk to them can be a good thing – it has benefits.
But it can also lead to people jumping their supervisor to get what they want.
Ideally, there should be trust from the manager (and a low enough ego) that if an employee needs something or wants to suggest ideas on something that relates to a different area or the company as a whole, it shouldn’t always have to go through the manager.
However, if the employee doesn’t like the answer that the manager gave them, jumping to the executive to try to get a different answer is harmful (it’s like playing mom vs. dad).
Or, if the employee may think they should just bypass and talk to the execs about it, this can waste a lot of people’s time because they will likely just be sent back to the supervisor – and it could cause some ill will.
Managers become therapists (or buddies)
If handled poorly, managers can easily become “therapists” or “buddies” with the employees.
If the door is always open about anything, some people will come in about any and every problem – work or home.
Or they may go in there just to chat about whatever.
Either way, it can waste a lot of time and lead to blurred lines between the relationship and roles they should have.
It’s not that a manager shouldn’t care about the employees or talk with them about their personal life. They should.
But there is a big difference between that and being their therapist.
Open-door policies can create the image of favoritism or gossip
Ideally, there is trust in the team so people know that this is not the case, but unfortunately, that’s not always so.
When one person is constantly going into the boss’s office to talk closed doors, it can give the impression of gossip or favoritism, and it can lead to negative feelings from other employees toward those people (and work in general).
So what should you do?
We’ve established that open-door policies can sometimes be ineffective and harmful if not done well.
So what can we do to do them right? And how do we get the free flow of communication, culture, and trust we want?
Here are some ideas for you:
Steps for a better open-door policy (and better communication and trust)
Schedule set times when the door is open
Instead of having the door open all the time, have set scheduled times when people can drop by. You could do this for a small period every day or a certain day during the week.
Other times they would need to set an appointment.
Having set times when people can drop by allows the manager to focus on their tasks with less interruption.
The manager also knows those set times are for the employees and can more easily put everything down and give their employees their full attention during those times.
Set ground rules
Set ground rules for when people can come by and what for.
For example, if it’s something that can wait till the next meeting, ask them to put it on the agenda for the next meeting instead.
If it’s a problem or they have trouble deciding, make them go through the process of figuring out the problem and coming to a solution before talking to you about it.
You could limit what they can talk about or make sure they’ve gone through whoever first, depending on the subject. For example, if someone wants to keep coming in to talk about sports, that’s a great thing to talk about on breaks, but it may be something not appropriate for the open-door time.
Having set ground rules can create safe boundaries that protect everyone’s time and productivity.
Don’t take people’s monkeys
As a manager, and a leader, your goal should be to develop your employees.
Handling all their problems for them doesn’t do that.
William Oncken wrote an article for Harvard Business Review called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey”.
The monkey is the next step in a task.
Too often when people come by with a problem, we take their monkey. We take responsibility for the next step of the task.
They leave without their monkey and then are waiting on us to finish that step so they can get back to it.
As Oncken says, we are then becoming subordinates of our subordinates.
Instead, when someone leaves your office, make sure they leave with the monkey. Make sure they have the next step.
If they need information, show them where to find it. If they have a problem, help them work through it if needed, but let the burden of the next step be on them.
Do one on one meetings
Having weekly one-on-one meetings can reduce the need for drop-in meetings.
If you meet with each staff one-on-one, those are times they have your full attention. You can see where they are at, give guidance where needed, answer questions, and let the person leave knowing you are there for them, have their back, and support them.
Have short daily huddles
Some companies like to have short, daily huddles. In these quick stand-up meetings, everyone gets together to discuss any information that needs to be shared.
Each person may talk about what they are working on and their needs and others can help point them in the right direction or offer suggestions.
These quick daily meetings could save you from a lot of needless general meetings and drop-in meetings.
Have a suggestion box
For those who are fearful of retaliation, having an anonymous suggestion box can offer another option for them to tell about issues or offer suggestions for improvement.
Having anonymous surveys that you send to your employees is an active approach you can take to get feedback and ideas about the company, staff, and how everything is functioning.
Reward those who speak up
If you reward those who speak up and offer suggestions, you will encourage people to do it more often.
If someone offers a suggestion or shares an area with something that needs to be fixed or addressed, and you act on it, depending on the nature of the complaint or suggestion, make sure to share it with everyone and commend the person who shared it.
This encourages others to speak up and offer suggestions because they see people being rewarded instead of retaliated against.
Encourage those who constantly complain to lead the change
Some people have legitimate concerns and complaints. Others complain about everything.
If you have people who do that, one solution you can take is to ask the person who complains about the issue to lead the change.
If they complain about how people are doing reports, suggest they lead a couple of classes on doing them right.
Whatever it may be, if you turn the complaint back on them, they are either going to stand up and start doing something about it or stop complaining all the time because they just want to complain, not do anything.
Build trust in the relationship
Building trust with your employees is one of the best ways to get them to open up. If you show you trust them and they know that you care for them and their wellbeing, then they are more likely to open up and share what’s needed.
And, if they respect you, they will also be more inclined to respect your time (maybe with a reminder) and come only when needed. And if you show trust in them in their work and decisions, they are more likely to take steps without always running to you for help or decisions.
Keep communication open and going
Keeping communication from the top down open, clear, and transparent can help build trust with leadership and can remove some of the issues or need for meetings that employees have.
If your employee needs extra support, you can get HR involved or point them toward a good source of help
If an employee comes to you about a lot of personal issues, and they are in need, sometimes HR has programs available that can help the employees.
If not, there are often other organizations outside of work that you can direct them toward for help. Some churches and organizations have programs such as Griefshare, Divorcecare, Celebrate Recovery, and so on that can help people through whatever they are going through.
You may also encourage them to get a counselor and therapist – and be willing to offer the extra time they need to do it.
An open-door policy is a good tool to use to help build more open communication and trust in the workplace.
However, by itself, and if done poorly, it’s often not enough or can cause extra harm instead of help.
Follow these guidelines, and it will help you create a more effective open-door policy and implement other tools to build the culture, communication, and trust you want.
Let me know in the comments below: What have you found makes for effective communication in the workplace? How effective have open-door policies been for you?