Controversial Take: Open Door Policies are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Welcome to the first edition of Little Girl Found’s Leadership Lessons. Here, we will learn how to suck less at motivating, inspiring, guiding, and leading – right from where we are. I’ll meet you in whatever situation you find yourself in and I promise there’s wisdom in these here ramblings.
On this episode of Leadership Lessons, we’ll consider why it’s more important to mentor and coach than it will ever be to have or enforce an open door policy. Stick with me here and I think you’ll come to agree.
In my years working for the government, I heard that term bantied about more times than I can count. I had bosses, managers, team chiefs – all the titles – tell me, “Stop by anytime, my door is always open.” Hell, at every post we had “grievance officers”. GRIEVANCE OFFICERS! I am aware this is not a novel concept but good grief, how bad have things gotten that we require an actual specific person assigned to this task?? I mention grievance officers because sometimes the person saying, “My door is always open,” was not only a superior but was also the assigned grievance officer and, more often than not, they were the worst-suited for both roles.
Here’s the problem.
The concept of an open door policy sounds great but it is rife with issues. The most damaging, I believe, is the fact that it leads to a customer service dynamic in the work-place which is fine if you’re, you know, IN customer service. What started as an open door policy, quickly morphed into a complaint desk. A place to …uh…air your grievances. (That’s what we in the biz refer to as a call-back. Quick, book me for the 7 o’clock show before my calendar is full.)
So, before a professional grievance officer comes at me, let me first say that I think having grievance officers is not a bad idea – they just need to be well-suited and trained for the job. Also, I am coming at this whole open door policy debate from some experience. I can think of a couple of examples where I’ve been on both sides of this and it has ended disastrously.
Situation One: Picture this, a mid-twenties professional has spend 18 months in her first “real” job learning that, while she was great in her current role, she was meant for something bigger and wonder of wonders, she actually knows exactly what she wants. So, she pursues a transfer. She talks to all the people she’s supposed to talk to, she interviews, she networks, she is eventually told that she’s the preferred applicant. Then she hears nothing for weeks. If she doesn’t move into this “dream job” soon, she will be forced to transfer to a different department that will keep here silo’d for several more years.
She’s new here though and unsure of the proper procedure to follow-up. She’s heard rumors that things like “hall files” exist which are basically unwritten assessments of your character and say very little about your experience or talent. But, that couldn’t be true could it? I mean, one simple misstep surely couldn’t mean your professional demise, right? RIGHT? So, she asks around. She runs it by coworkers, friends, and even her boyfriend. She talks to her current boss who is supportive, thinks she’s great and has been helping her throughout this process. He says to be careful and go through the proper chain of command. She’s aware of the concept but sort of sidelines the notion.
She recalls the interview. The gentleman she met with was very senior and at the helm of a huge department on the tip of the proverbial spear. She remembers he was was slightly detached but professional and polite. She also remembers that he said, “Feel free to reach out as the process runs its course – my door is always open.” And if you didn’t hear ominous music when you read that quote then I’m doing this wrong.
She considers all her options and decides that reaching out to her possible future boss’ administrative assistant would be the best course. No jackpot. The woman says she’ll pass along the message but she has no additional information. Another week goes by and then another. Then, encouraged by her boyfriend, she calls the head of the department (Mr. Slightly-detached-but-polite) after-hours (on purpose) and leaves a message, politely inquiring as to the status of the position and requesting a return call at his “earliest convenience”.
What could go wrong?
What followed was bewildering. When she arrived at work the next day to find an email from the administrative assistant in her in box, she was thrilled. When she read it, she was heartbroken. It’s a no, they said. She wanted to know why. Her boss at the time said he new someone who could ask around and what he found out was that Mr. Slightly-detached-but polite had basically said, “Who does this little girl think she is, calling ME direct? Does she know I’m a (insert pay grade or executive level position, doesn’t matter)?” Furthermore, he told his administrative assistant to make sure this “little girl” never worked in the department for him…or anyone else. And that was that. So much for an open door policy.
Situation Two: Enough with the “she”. We all know I’m talking about my experiences here. Throughout my career, I have taken pride in being approachable. I want to be the person that people come to when they need guidance, support, a helping hand. Early on, I tried to establish myself as a mentor. Even when I didn’t know very much, I always thought there was something I could teach.
In 2004, when I first started with the government, my office was not just an open door – it was a revolving door. People would come in and sit and just wax poetic about everything. They’d complain about the workload, ask for advice, talk about their weekend plans, ask for workout tips – you name it. I began to view the chairs in my office as enemies. It was as if they were inviting people to come in and just…kill time. It wasn’t just colleagues either. Sometimes my bosses would come in and sit down and talk for hours at a time. What’s a girl to do?
Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I started to arrive at work at 4:30 in the morning and come in on the weekends – just to get the bare minimum done. I even, GASP, worked overtime FOR FREE there for a while. A big…super huge…exclamation point..NO NO!! Side story, because of this, my department opened up OT for everyone which was great but sadly, it meant that I eventually had a lot of distractions on my “quiet” working weekends as well.
But my personality is what it is. So, when I became the boss, I ran into the same issues only worse. In both instances (colleague/boss), I felt obligated to take the time out of my day to allow the rants, the discussions, the appeals for insight. I believed it was a testament to the kind of person AND leader I was. Shouldn’t I want people to seek my input? Yes….but. And it’s a big but.
My open door policy is one of the several reasons I hit a burn out in my career. I kept working too much OT, getting in early, staying late – because I had to make up for the lost time during the day. And, while dedication to a job you love is not always bad, it can be very exhausting. My open door was was increasingly having an effect on my peace of mind. Take away: open door = revolving door = no bueno.
How to close the door!
This is what I would tell anyone starting out today. When you first arrive at a job or you’re just starting college or heck, even in your day to day – look for a mentor and be a mentor. There’s always something we can learn and something we can teach. This will make your professional AND life experiences so much easier and more meaningful. Take my word for it.
But here’s what I really really learned. There is a difference between approachability/having an open door policy and leadership. Sure, we should all lead from where we are but when you’re an actual leader in an organization – a team chief, a manager, an executive – there becomes a constant requirement to protect your most valuable resource, your time. What I learned is that the line between these things often becomes blurred when you’re an approachable and “nice” person.
How to make the shift from being a complaint center to a leader. People like you? Great. But now you find yourself listening to them spend hours complaining about the performance of their colleagues, the organization, or just life in general. What should you do to manage your own time and sanity without coming across as a jerk? Here are a few tips you can try:
- Close the dang door! Ok, I get it. That’s oversimplified – not to mention we don’t all have physical doors. What I mean is, if it’s not too late, don’t ever use the words “open door policy”. I mean, like, ever.
- Be proactive. The reason that companies get mired in the “complaint culture” is because people feel like they need an outlet. If you build a healthy work environment by hiring the right people and creating a culture of accountability, the barrage of “drive-bys” should lessen.
- Set Expectations for Performance and Engagement: When performance standards are unclear and boundaries are not set early, people tend to run amok and it’s no wonder. How would you feel if your job was unclear and interactions with colleagues and leadership were inconsistent? Which leads me to….
- Offer and Collect SCHEDULED Feedback: Instead of waiting for people to drop in with their list of 30 complaints, consistently schedule time with each employee to provide and receive feedback. I know this sounds like a time-suck and it can be but the key is to focus the individual on how to stop wishing their circumstance or situation would change and have them start thinking about changing their mindsets and finding ways for them to impact their own reality.
- If all else fails and the door just will not be shut, use these moments to teach the person in your office. Ask the questions that encourage self-reflection:
- What could you do to change the situation, relationship, etc? What have you already tried?
- What are the facts of the situation? Is that what is really bothering them or is it something else? Perhaps it’s something bigger or smaller. The idea is to get at the root of where they’re coming from so that you can be in a better position to teach.
- What would be the best outcome? Have you looked at that from different perspectives?
- And for goodness sake, stop putting snacks, candy, or fun little “office toys” on your desk or the table in your office. It took me years to realize that these things that made me happy also resulted in drive-bys turning into hours-long social sessions. No more snickers in a crystal bowl!
One last thing to consider – an open door policy might seem like a good way to hear from all of your employees but the fact is, not everyone is a squeaky wheel. There are those of us who recognize someone’s time is valuable and will not seek time with our colleagues or bosses because we don’t want to bother them. If you have an open door policy but no regular one-on-ones with your people, you will have a narrow view of what is going on in your organization. Someone’s voice will be left out and that may very well be the person you most need to hear from. So, scrap the open door in favor of being a good and active leader.
What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a loon? Do you have some suggestions that have worked for you? Have you been in these situations? How were they handled? I’d love to hear from you!
This has been Leadership Lessons with the “girl” from Little Girl Found. See you next time! 😉