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LEADERSHIP: Open Door Policies: Do They Help or Hinder

You’ve probably heard this statement before; in fact, you’ve probably even said it yourself: “my door is always open.”  Chances are you said it to someone, whether it be an employee, customer or someone else who could benefit from your services, but when you said it, did you ever think that your action might have a negative impact on your relationships?  Open door policies (ODP) when used as a tool to circumvent the chain of command can severely undermine the organizational structure that empowers and develops staff.

A few years ago I worked for an organization that had struggled with its reputation within the industry, and subsequently, had developed a client base that took advantage of this discourse by seeing an opportunity to circumvent middle management and go directly to the top of the management ladder.  Through no fault of their own, senior leaders had created a system that provided clients with a way to have their concerns answered quicker and more to their satisfaction.  This culture had inadvertently been created due to incidents in prior years where middle managers had made some poor decisions, leading to a loss in customers, thus causing a knee-jerk reaction to handle issues at the top.  The solution to this was for leadership to open their doors allowing clients to ‘hear it from the horse’s mouth.’  Clients could call directly to a leader’s office whenever a decision was made that wasn’t to their satisfaction and the decision was promptly overturned.

It didn’t take me long to realize the negative effects of this system, and I remember sitting in an annual board meeting, much to my surprise, telling the Chair of the Board that her open door policy was having the opposite effect then what she was wanting.  At that point, having only been on the staff for a few months, I was sure that I had sealed my fate as the shortest term administrator in the organization’s history, but instead of tossing aside my comment, she looked up at me and said, “go on…”  I continued to share, with her and the rest of the board, what I had seen and how their desire to have a more transparent organization had led to a disenfranchised management staff that was seen as having no true authority.  From that point forward, the organization started the long road to balance the desire to have direct contact with clients, while simultaneously empowering the staff and the decisions they made.

The thought of open door policies is good in theory, but can create a slippery slope when put to practice.  As managers we must maintain that hunger to meet the client (internal or external) where they are, but how do we acknowledge their concerns without undermining the system in the process? First, let’s see if this is a problem for you. Below is a quick survey to help guide your thoughts around your own ODP.

As you answer these questions, remember that perception is reality, and while you may believe your intentions are pure, ask yourself how your staff truly feels regarding this topic.

  1. I currently have a belief that
    it’s important for my staff or customers to be able to reach me.  (You have an open door policy whether
    formal or informal.)
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. The current ODP was created as
    a response to supervisors or managers who regularly handled situations
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. The issues that people bring
    through my door are typically from a negative interaction that occurred
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. The decisions that I make
    typically overturn previous decisions rather than create collaborations.
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. My ODP is used frequently and
    has proven to improve relations with those coming to me.
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. I regularly communicate my
    intentions with the managers who are impacted by my ODP.
Never           Sometimes         Always
  1. I regularly provide an
    opportunity to my managers to express their opinion before I make a
    decision on the matter.
Never           Sometimes         Always

If after reading these questions you feel as though you have some work to do to adjust your open door policy to insure it has the impact that you’re intending, than let’s discuss some options.  First let me remind you that open door policies are meant to improve communications, minimize assumptions and build meaningful relationships. They are not designed to circumvent authority, overturn appropriate decisions or create a culture of distrust.

1. Analyze:  Do some research about your current ODP.  Ask your staff for their honest opinion regarding the current system and if they feel it works effectively.
2. Re-design: Before you spring into action, take the time to create a system that works for your organization. Chances are a quick decision was the origin of your current ODP.
3. Implement: Take the time to express your intent with your staff, laying out the expectations and even the boundaries of your new system.
4. Evaluate:  Every system at some point will operate outside its intended parameters. Just like you would continue driving your car if it had a severe knocking sound coming from the engine, the same goes for your ODP.  If it starts to make noise, check it out, and fix the problem.
Personally, I believe that ODPs provide a significant benefit to the organization and its staff; however, the significance must be seen in the quality of the discussion that occurs behind the ‘open door.’  In reviewing a lot of the comments that came up on Facebook and Twitter regarding this topic, many found both advantages and disadvantages to ODP.  Some had seen it implemented in a way that increased communication and allowed for personal relationship development, where others felt it actually provided an outlet for griping and social time.  In another case someone mentioned the fact that an ODP had been implemented because the manager knew it was good business practice, but he/she had no commitment to the actual goal of the ODP.

No matter what side you take, I encourage you to consider the discussion above and the suggestions for analyzing your current plan.  Some may be reassured to find that their ODP is operating as it should, while other may determine that some changes need to be made.

I hope this conversation has provided some insight and give me a shout if I can help in any way.  You can also follow me on twitter now (@MyMgmt), where I’ve been providing regular management discussions, tips and strategies.



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