What if one of the most widely revered management practices was completely wrong? Is it possible that the “open door policy” is harmful to managers and individual contributors alike?
Could it be that the “open door” just enables individual contributors to delegate their problems back onto management?
An open door policy refers to the practice of organizational leaders leaving their office doors “open” so that employees feel welcome to stop by to meet informally, to ask questions, or to discuss matters that have been weighing on their minds.
Of course, the goals of an open door policy are admirable—that’s why it’s so popular. The theory states that an organization uses such openness to build a culture of trust, collaboration, communication and respect regardless of an individual’s position in the hierarchy.
While the goals are noble, the disadvantages are real. When I asked my newsletter subscribers to share their real-world experiences with the “open door” I was flooded with replies, and all of them asked for anonymity, so I’ve changed their names below.
Employees May Be Afraid To Speak Up
The first problem is that many employees are afraid to speak up. Business professors James R. Detert (Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University) and Amy Edmonson (Harvard Business School) set out to analyze the reasons behind this in a joint study they conducted at a leading technology corporation.
In interviewing nearly 200 individuals from all levels and functions, they found that employees often chose to hold back from sharing information that could be beneficial for the company. Why? Self-preservation. The professors explain:
In our interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain. So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet.
Detert and Edmonson go on to explain that “broad, vague perceptions about the work environment” often inhibited employees from speaking up. For example, some workers referenced myths of individuals who publicly shared their ideas, and were “suddenly gone from the company.”
Indeed, Gerry emailed me to describe what happened when he used the open door policy of his manager’s manager.
In a meeting with him, I told him about some of the problems of performance and communication we had with my immediate manager who was new and inexperienced. I also suggested some solutions… a few days later he told my manager what I said. That created a bad situation between the two of us. My manager soon left the company and a few months later I also was forced to leave.
Was there substance to these stories? It doesn’t matter. If the perception is there then the danger of employees holding back is automatic.
In other words, certain employees will naturally resist sharing their input. Putting the responsibility on those individuals to openly communicate their problems or suggestions for improvement is tantamount to locking that potentially helpful feedback in a trunk and throwing away the key.
Employees May Become Dependent On Leaders
For other employees, the problem is the opposite. In their willingness to share all of their problems and ideas with management, these individuals become overly dependent on company leaders. In essence, they become afraid to make most decisions without first running them by their superiors.
Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s foremost leadership coaches, explores the reasons for this in an essay he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. As Goldsmith points out, employees know their jobs—their tasks, roles and functions—better than anyone else in an organization. But not everyone is comfortable making decisions, and here is the critical point:
It isn’t possible for a leader to ‘empower’ someone to be accountable and make good decisions. People have to empower themselves. Your role is to encourage and support the decision-making environment, and to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions. By doing this, you help your employees reach an empowered state.
Nick, a manager of a business in Australia, tried to modernize the company culture partly through a wide-open door policy. He described the outcome:
I was working 70 plus hours a week, I had unwittingly created a culture of dependence whenever even the smallest problem arose… The stronger (more valuable) staff members did not feel empowered or even trusted in their roles, and were more likely to consider leaving. And the weaker (less valuable) staff members only grew more dependent. Which meant the stronger staff would leave and the weaker ones would stay. It would appear that my open door management policy had basically become a mechanism by which staff could delegate their problems back onto management!
As a leader, you have a responsibility to pass on valuable knowledge and experience through good training and coaching—at appropriate times. But leaving the door open discourages your people from appropriate bias-to-action, and limits the opportunities they need to grow.
Productivity Decline For Managers
Employees aren’t the only ones harmed by traditional open door policies. In fact, it’s the team leaders and executives who reap the most adverse effects. As you might imagine, the open door policy makes for a productivity nightmare.
A manager named Connie told me her team complains at her door if she isn’t always around and available. You can almost hear her frustration in her email to me:
I am a manager with an open door policy. The biggest downside I am facing is that I can’t get things done. Every task I want to work on takes forever to be completed — this of course affects my productivity, my emails and my sense of achievement.
Tina told me, “Although I support the open door policy, it means that every time I am interrupted it takes me 15 minutes to get back to what I was doing.”
Researchers who study productivity have varying estimates of the impact of interruptions. On the high side, Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, found that it takes an office worker an average of 25 minutes to fully return to a task after being interrupted. (And that research doesn’t address how interruptions affect the quality of our work.)
Managers Turn Into Therapists
This productivity problem is magnified when limits aren’t placed on what the open door should be used for. Paul is a plant manager who shared with me his challenges with team members bringing him their non-work related issues. He said:
[It’s] a complete double edged sword. On the one hand, I know for the most part what makes my employees tick and I try to be as open and honest with them as I can about things. On the other hand I’ve had to sit and listen to men cry about what their girlfriend or wife did to them, how disrespected they feel, why they have to have the next day off, and the list goes on. Because I probably went a little too far with my open door policy the line between understanding boss and ‘might be a friend’ has been blurred.
Annette also wrote to describe this blurring of the boundaries:
There is a borderline between allowing people to come into your office to communicate something and another for them to sit down for a counseling session about their life. I have allowed people to come into my office only to have them spend an hour and a half in there while they pour their heart out about work, life and anything else that comes to mind.
I once had a submarine commander tell me that any person under his command could sink his sub, so it was his job to know exactly what was going on with everyone on board, at both a professional and personal level. But if your team doesn’t carry the same risks, having an open door for any reason can quickly spiral out of control.
The Degradation Of The Chain of Command
Another disadvantage of the open door policy is its tendency to render the chain of command useless. Despite the rise of alternative management methods (like the recent holocracy movement), the reality is that most companies employ a more traditional hierarchical form of corporate governance. When employees feel entitled to consistently bypass their managers or team leaders and reach out to higher-level executives, they begin to create distance between themselves and the individuals with whom they should be working the closest. The art of delegation begins to lose meaning and organizational integrity may begin to erode.
A Culture Without Open Doors?
So with all of the problems that come with an open door policy, is it time to slam these doors completely shut? Should leaders refuse unscheduled one-on-one meetings? Should they remain distant and aloof?
Of course not.
There are several practices that are better than an open door policy, which actually accomplish the same goals but with less downside. On my next post, you can read about open door alternatives.