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Open Door Policies: Is Your "Open" Door Slamming Shut In Employees' Faces?

by Bob McCulloch

Two businessmen meeting

In today’s world, the concept of “need to know” information is not only obsolete; it is a hindrance to an organization’s ability to compete. Consumers demand transparency, and they are not alone. Increasingly, employees expect that their workplaces will operate with clarity and honesty. An open door policy can usher in the transparency that individuals need, as well as the results organizations want.

How can leaders implement such a policy effectively?

Opportunity Is Knocking

A TINYPulse survey of more than 40,000 employees found that management transparency is the single most important factor in “employee happiness” (a concept closely akin to “employee engagement”). The survey authors noted, “The cost of improving transparency is almost zero, but requires an ongoing dialogue between management and staff.”

One avenue that organizations can explore, of course, is an open door environment. It allows for individuals to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. While this promotes enhanced engagement and productivity it also gives organizations the opportunity to create cultures of transparency, collaboration, and happiness.

In theory, an open door policy is remarkably simple. When individuals have questions, suggestions, concerns, or objections, they are able express it to someone they either respect or who they feel has the power to act on it.

An open door policy has tremendous potential, and it is often not fully realized. Why do such initiatives frequently fail to achieve their goals?

When Open Door Policies at Work Don’t Work

What happens when an open door policy doesn’t work? When it doesn’t achieve its objective, which is to encourage employees to use their voice, it is not the policy, per se. It is the way that the manager implements the policy.

Say that I have a very direct and authoritative management style. Is it likely that my direct reports will take advantage of my open door? Probably not. They may feel that they will be penalized, or that their careers will be damaged, if they dare to speak up.

As a manager, I have not only undermined the policy, I have created a situation where there is much less trust. In this case, a closed door policy that is supported by consistent behaviour would be more inviting than a false open door.

A Truly Open Door

Behaviours need to reinforce open door policies, as Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, discovered. He led his company through the making of the first computer-animated film, Toy Story. It was a tremendous success, and then he approached his team of producers about their next project.

Catmull was astonished when they told him they hated working at Pixar and wanted to quit. They felt like second-class citizens within the organization. He had an open door policy; why hadn’t they come to him with their concerns? The problem was that people didn’t feel they could walk through it. It was, essentially, a false open door.

Consistency: The Key to Successful Open Doors

Managers can easily say they have an open door policy; they must also substantiate that with their behaviour. Often, much of the problem in implementing a successful policy comes down to training. Leaders require training that will build self-awareness, that will foster reflection, that will promote insight, and that will lead to action.

For instance, if I’m that authoritative manager we mentioned above, targeted training and coaching can help me become more aware of how I come across to others, how my people perceive me. Often, people lack this level of awareness, and simply bringing it to their attention can facilitate the necessary change.

It is often said that good managers keep the door open and don’t need a policy. There is a great deal of truth to that. Their people know that they can speak up. Appropriate development and coaching allows managers to learn the consistent behaviours they need to exhibit to get people to walk into the door—and to feel confident walking out themselves and starting the dialogue. Whether you have a formal policy is immaterial. You have an open door in practice.

Open doors, by their nature, encourage transparency and engagement. When managers implement them, they must take care that their words and behaviours align. When they do, they can see significant improvements in their results and their overall workplace culture.

Bob McCulloch

Bob McCulloch is a recognized authority in providing strategic guidance and executive coaching for tomorrow’s top business leaders. Employing a question-based approach and with over 40 years’ experience, he is able to build strong, trust-based relationships with senior-level executives who are looking to move the needle in their careers from good to great.



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