It seems like a gracious and genuine gesture for leaders in executive, senior, or supervisory roles everywhere. Extending a policy to their team that invites them to knock on their door to express concerns at any time they feel compelled to still feels like a forward-thinking servant leadership practice, and that’s probably why it’s still so popular.
It’s a check-in-the-box tactic that makes the leader seem engaged, concerned, and willing to listen. Perhaps that’s true and the leader genuinely is all of those things. Perhaps the leader sincerely expects the team to circumnavigate any direct chain-of-command in the company’s internal structure to take grievances, professional concerns, or personal issues directly to them at any time as a demonstration of support. I sure did.
I always established an open-door policy as a leader. Opening my office to my team was typically the first order of business for me in any new leadership role I accepted. Transparently, I also felt like it would make me more approachable and more connected. It seemed like a noble idiosyncratic trait to my modality of leadership until I began to notice some pitfalls and drawbacks to having an open-door policy:
1. It’s rarely used.
Every so often, I would field a genuine concern from a staff member who trusted me. Most of the time, however, my open door serviced general complaints and gripes about teammates and the threshold to my office would seem like a petri dish for one-sided toxic deposits of gossip and inappropriate remarks.
This did not promote healthy conflict resolution and disrupted productivity on several occasions. Real issues were discussed in my absence between teammates in the form of cynical remarks and apathetic expressions. Meanwhile, I was oblivious in my high tower assuming all was well in the kingdom.
2. In my efforts to be more approachable and connected I became the opposite.
I lost touch with what was happening down the hall. My relationships with my teammates eroded. My door was open, and the staff knew that if there were any issues, I was all ears. But I wasn’t always attentive and vigilant independent of my team alerting me to issues. You can’t sit in an office and notice the teammate who’s exhausted or struggling. You can’t reserve yourself to your desk and notice the teammates who are at odds with one another.
You can’t see burnout on your team’s faces no matter how open you keep your office door. You have to engage. You have to seek the staff that know what’s going on and initiate discussions with them. You have to get in front of your people and care.
3. Served as an unintentional override on the chain-of-command.
Undermining the lead workers in leadership positions underneath me by creating a teamwide dependency on my decisions created an atmosphere of micromanagement that I was vehemently opposed to. Micromanagement stilts growth. I always want my team to feel empowered, to trust their decisions, to learn from their choices, to develop themselves, and to discover their own greatness. Micromanagement provides unsustainable and infertile conditions for this type of growth.
Before I could recognize the instability this created, I had already stripped my first-line leaders of the team’s trust by indirectly and erroneously communicating to the team that I somehow didn’t trust the lead workers’ ability to address concerns so the team could take advantage of my open-door policy if they ever felt that the lead workers were ill-equipped to resolve issues as well.
Availability to your people shouldn’t be a passive action and should not come at the expense of the trust your team places in the leaders underneath you.
Best practice: don’t communicate an open-door policy.
Show up for your people in a way that you don’t have to communicate your support for them in a policy because they’ll trust you enough to follow expectations, make decisions, resolve conflicts, and address concerns appropriately in a way that supports the vision of the team.
If you’re there for them, they don’t need a policy that lets them know that you’re there for them.