The “Open door policy” is generally seen as a positive leadership concept. It refers to an arrangement where team members can feel free to speak to their manager at any time.
In other words, “My door is always open”.
It does sound good, and it really is a nice idea. After all, open two-way communication between leaders and their people is a good thing.
However, over the years I’ve seen the open door policy go wrong in a number of ways.
That’s why in this article, I’m going to run through some of the pitfalls and how you can make an open door policy work better for you.
What is an Open Door Policy?
Firstly, the basics. An open door policy is an arrangement between a leader and their people that allows them to feel free to contact the leader at any time (within reason).
This means instead of waiting for scheduled meetings with their manager, team members can feel free to speak to them directly, without necessarily providing any prior warning.
There are several benefits to this approach, including:
- Promoting free-flowing and flexible communication with team members
- Faster support for team members, without needing to wait for a specific time
- A greater ability for the leader to observe and engage with their people
- Rapid problem-solving, as leaders can quickly become aware of issues; and
- A reduced feeling of hierarchy, where team members can feel greater freedom to communicate with senior leaders.
These benefits can create greater trust between leaders and their teams, leading to better cohesion and a more open and honest working environment.
Learn More: Why Building Trust Is Better Than Authority.
What About Today’s Different Working Environment?
Obviously there is no real door to open if you are working remotely. And even if you’re attending a workplace, many organisations have moved to “open plan” working, without traditional offices.
So it is likely that there will be no literal door for people to open.
The term originated back in the day when managers always had offices, with doors. The manager would leave the door open, so people could come straight inside.
However, even without doors, the concepts are similar. The aim is to create a free-flowing and flexible arrangement for communicating with the boss.
So in theory, the benefits above should still apply, no matter what environment you work in. It’s the mechanics with which you make it happen that will be different.
Learn More: 4 Lessons Learned from Remote Working.
Where the Open Door Policy Can Go Wrong
There are a number of ways that I’ve seen an open door policy go badly. When used well, it can really improve connection and communication within a team.
However, there are a few pitfalls of the open door policy that I want to look at, so we can avoid them.
1. The Door Is Open, But People Aren’t Walking In
One of the main issues with having an open door policy is that it can provide a false sense of connection.
If you pride yourself on having open dialogue with your people, then you need to be sure that they actually feel safe coming to you.
Otherwise, we can find a situation where a leader believes they are aware what’s happening in their team, when actually they are in the dark.
Leaders may become complacent when they think that communication lines are open, when they’re actually blocked!
Learn More: How to Build Psychological Safety at Work.
2. You’re Interrupted at Key Times When You Need to Focus
The good thing about the open door policy is that it is meant to provide easy access to you, the leader. However, this can be a problem when you really need to get something done!
I’ve worked with leaders who have proclaimed that they have an open door policy, and then found out that their people didn’t actually want to walk through that door.
Because when they did, they were confronted by a leader who was irritated, distracted or simply couldn’t be bothered to listen.
This sort of behaviour is common from leaders who are busy, and don’t have the time to talk right now. In fact, they’d rather be focusing on other things.
In other words, they wish you’d just go away, instead of interrupting them right now!
3. Certain People Dominate Your Attention
Sometimes we have the greatest of intentions when trying to open up communication with our people.
Then something bad happens.
One person starts to dominate the conversation. They provide all the ideas, raise all the issues and take up most of the airspace.
You find them contacting you all the time. Sometimes, they take up valuable time that could be spent with others in the team.
But you’ve said people can come and talk to you when they need to … so what can you do?
Learn More: Got a Needy Employee? Try These Strategies!
How to Make the Open Door Policy Work For You and Your People
I think the open door policy concept is a good one, as long as we don’t fall into the traps above. It might not be quite like the old days (where you actually had a real door), but the idea is still the same.
We want to keep open, free-flowing communication between us, and our people.
Here are some suggestions to help you do just that.
1. Combine the Open Door With the Regular 1 to 1 Meetings
One trap that some leaders fall into is assuming that the open door policy is enough to understand what’s going on in their team.
They expect people to come to them with issues or ideas, and if they don’t, they think that “no news is good news”. However, this can be problematic if people aren’t comfortable with your open door policy.
That’s why it’s always important to keep up the regular 1 to 1 meetings with your team. It can be tempting to try to save time without them, but this can be a big mistake.
1 to 1 meetings provide a great opportunity to speak to your people about the future and help them raise issues in a safe space, without feeling like they are inconveniencing you.
You can learn more about how to make your 1 to 1 meetings better at the link below.
Learn More: How to Make Your 1 to 1 Meetings Better.
2. Safeguard Your Own Time
The concept of “servant leadership” has been around for a while. While I mostly agree with the principles, I have never liked the connotation that you are a “servant” for your team.
For me, this implies that you exist to do your people’s bidding.
You also have your own priorities. It’s important to safeguard your own time, wellbeing and mental health to be able to create an environment where your people can do well.
To make the open door policy work for you, make sure that you block out your own focus time. When you really need to get something finished, try to make sure that you are *not* available.
Without taking this step, you run the risk of making your people feel bad for interrupting you, when they can see you’re trying to focus. This will only make it less likely they’ll come back in the future.
You can block your own time by:
- Getting away from your normal work location
- Disconnecting from your email and chat systems
- Blocking your calendar for specific important tasks.
It’s not selfish to safeguard your time, unless you do it too often.
Finding a balance is important, and helps you to keep the communication lines open for the majority of the time.
3. Set the Rules of Engagement
Sometimes the open door policy can have team members using you as a crutch. That is, they come to you for everything, and stop trying to solve their own problems.
This can position you as a bottleneck, needing to be available all the time, to keep things flowing in your team.
It can be beneficial to speak to your people about some requirements, before they come to you with requests.
If you are trying to empower your people, you might even try letting them make a decision first, and then letting you know later (as opposed to needing to ask you every time).
Or, you might require that they make some effort to solve a problem first, before testing the solution with you.
Over time, these leadership approaches can help your people to grow in confidence as they begin to realise that they often have the answers they need within themselves.
They also have the benefit of forcing your people to think for themselves. This means the people who are clogging up your doorway will need to think harder before they do so.
Of course, you’ll still be available to support them when they really need it, too.
Tailor Your Approach to Your Team
There are always benefits and drawbacks to any leadership approach. That’s why it’s so important to tailor them to you team.
Some leaders read articles about servant leadership, adaptive leadership or having an open door policy, and they’ll take it and run with it.
However, not all approaches will work the same way for every team. You need to work out what will work best.
Take what works, leave what doesn’t.
You don’t need to use one leadership approach, or all the techniques you read about. Give yourself the credit, because you know best.