In recent months I have seen several senior managers/managers post articles on Linked In about their open-door policies (one actually used the term ‘aggressive’, with regard to how he was with his open-door policy, which I assume means he is consistently on-going in encouraging employees to come to his door with issues.)
But is this the way to go for senior managers and managers with regard to their employees? Should I, as a senior manager/manager be ‘always’ available for an employee to come and talk to? Would it be sustainable? Or could it really be a little disingenuous, giving the impression of a friendly, available and helpful top-boss, when in fact the opposite may well be true (still friendly, but not really available or helpful?) If it is not the best way to go, what should managers and senior managers do with regards to informal and friendly contact with their employees?
What Is Meant By An Open-Door Policy?
When a manager or senior manager says they practise an open-door policy with their employees, they are essentially saying that any employee can come to them and talk about whatever they like, whenever they like (assuming it is at a time when the manager is available.) It is an open pass and employees are encouraged that if they have an issue, then they should come and talk to the CEO/MD/Director/Manager or whoever is expressing their openness towards employees doing this. (A key point here is that it is not the same as having an open door to your direct reportees, which is in fact essential. I will mention this later.)
To be honest, I tend to cringe whenever I hear senior managers or managers saying that they have an open-door policy to all their employees because, unless it is a small company, it opens up many issues that can demoralise managers and employees, and is something that I do not think is sustainable in the long run.
For example, say an employee goes to his manager and requests a holiday at a certain time. The manager checks and ultimately refuses the request because it is a busy period and they already have several others who have booked holiday at that time. So the employee decides to go to the CEO and submit the same request to him or her. The employee sees the CEO, who, on hearing his request, asks if he has requested the holiday through his manager first. The employee explains yes and that the manager refused. What happens now? The manager has correctly done his job. If the CEO says he or she will check with the manager and see what can be done (or they say “Leave it with me”, thereby giving the impression that they will change the decision), they have immediately undermined the manager. On the other hand, if he or she tells the employee that they cannot interfere with what the manager has decided (in order to support the manager), the employee will lose morale and, in some ways, respect for the CEO. After all, the CEO is the big-boss, why can’t they do something about it? Open-door policies give rise to a sense of expectation and help from someone higher in the hierarchy, which disappears when it does not happen.
Here is another scenario. The employee goes to the CEO with a great idea for improving the employee’s department. The CEO likes it and goes to the director, who goes to the manager and tells him or her that this is a good idea to be implemented. However, the manager will probably now feel undermined and perhaps betrayed, because the employee went to the CEO first, making the manager seem unapproachable or not open to new ideas. This is not what you want for your managers. Perhaps the employee went to the manager first and he or she was still thinking about it or, for good reasons, had delayed implementing the idea. Perhaps they themselves could not see the benefits and had decided to leave it. Either way, being told to implement an idea by your boss that came from one of your employees will be embarrassing for some, and in some ways, demoralising for the manager. The employee may also feel empowered over the manager, which will make the manager’s leadership of them much more difficult.
Open door policies carry a recipe that can spell demoralisation either for employees or for managers.
Over 100 Years ago, Henri Fayol (often referred to as the father of modern management) set out fourteen principles of management, many of which are still applicable today. One of them was that the line of authority should be respected. All communication should flow up and down the line of command of the organization, with sideways communication fine as long as managers above were kept informed.
The main problem with open-door policies is that they open the door (excuse the pun!) for the line of command to be broken and they, therefore, have the potential to undermine the authority of managers below the senior manager (or supervisors below the manager.) On the other hand, if the senior manager seems to support the manager and always says “discuss this with your manager first, and if there is a problem come and see me,” it causes two problems. The first is that the employee will start to be cynical about the ‘open door policy’ and feel that it is pointless if they are not supported. The second is that if the employee goes to the manager and is then not happy with the response, he or she will feel they still have permission to go back to the senior manager and discuss again with them to get their way.
What Is The Alternative?
So, what should senior managers and managers do to appear available and interested in their employees? Three actions come to mind:
1. Firstly, you should always have an open door to your direct reportees. That should actually be a given, and you should encourage them to approach you when they need to discuss something or have a question. If they need to talk with you, then you should be ready to listen and hear what they have to say. If you are busy at the time, give them another time when they can come and see you (unless you recognise they have come with a personal issue. In this situation, try and give at least some time to them, as it will have taken them quite a lot of courage to come and share about something personal with you.)
One caveat is that you should not encourage them to see you as ‘chief problem solver’ so that they come to you for the solution to each and every problem. There are many managers who have allowed this to happen, and who then get endlessly disturbed by employees coming for solutions to problems (“why do my people come to me with problems and not solutions”, they cry. Because you provide solutions for them every time. You need to coach them to solve their own problems. That is another whole topic, but essentially it is you as a manager asking questions that leads them to the correct solution. In time, they will begin to have the confidence to solve problems on their own or come to you with possible solutions.) The point from this is that your reportees should have the confidence to be able to come to your office and discuss with you issues and situations that require your attention.
2. Secondly, practise LBWA – Leadership By Walking Around. A much more positive way of meeting with all employees is to make a regular practice of leaving your office and walking around the building. Talk with employees, ask them how things are going or ask questions regarding their work or about the department or the company direction. Practise spending a specific time each day (or every other day) when you walk around and engage your employees in conversation. Let them get to hear you and see that you are friendly and approachable (and can be called by your first name!) One CEO of a company in Dubai shared with me how he had memorised the names of all 120 of his employees (and had begun to learn their spouses names), so he could address them on a first-name basis, and also ask how their families were doing. It is highly motivational when the big boss recognises you because it makes a person feel valued, and that is what all humans are often wanting, including when they are employees. Memorising names is not easy for many people, but if you can do this it is a worthwhile practice.
So, practise LBWA once a day, or at least 2-3 times a week, and it will change people’s image of you to something much more positive, as well as giving them an opportunity to talk with you if there is something on their mind. And because you have not said come and talk to me about anything, it will be okay to say, if necessary, “have you spoken to your manager about this?”, which you can then encourage them to do, before if necessary following up yourself.
3. Thirdly, if an employee says that they want to speak with you in your office about an issue, request them to share with you what it is about first. They can say it or send an email. Agree to see them, but give yourself time to discuss it with their manager first to find out the full facts and let the manager know the employee has requested to see you.
Just having an open-door policy for all employees is simply not sustainable as a manager, director or CEO, unless you lead or are part of a small company (20 or fewer employees). It will also have the capacity to undermine morale for the managers or supervisors below you as it allows the line of the command to be broken. Or it can demoralise employees when you are unable to fulfil their expectations.
However, through practising the three aspects mentioned above you should see an improvement in morale and a change in how employees see and approach you.