In interviewing a client at the end of our project I learned how ineffective “open door policies” are by organizational leaders.
My client said, “Before we started our work together I couldn’t understand why employees who knew I had an open door policy, didn’t come to me when they knew another employee was doing things that could put our company in danger.”
I told him, “that’s not unusual.”
When there is low trust in a work environment, employees have uncertainty as to how a boss will react when they bring issues to them. So they don’t.
Additionally, in low trust work environments, employees go into survival mode. Typically, employees will band together creating an “us” against “them” culture.
When this occurs it renders an “open door policy” worthless.
It also shows the organizational leader, who continues to remind everyone about their open door and ask for it to be used, to be clueless and out of touch.
In these environments, even if employees know about and use the “open door policy,” the conversations will be one of four types:
- Cursory: This offers discussions that only dabble in surface issues and never really address anything of substance,
- Complaining and Venting: These discussions rarely lead to solutions and waste too much time in businesses today, or
- Whistleblowing: In these situations the whistleblower just wants to bring the issue to the attention of organizational leaders but doesn’t want anyone to do anything about it for fear of repercussions by co-workers.
- Not used.
Another client told me recently about how their open door often leads to the whistleblower situation, with employees coming to tell about issues co-workers are engaged in, but they don’t want their boss to do anything about it because doing so would “out” the whistleblower, causing them problems with co-workers.
He tells them, “if you don’t want me to address the issue you are going to tell me about, don’t tell me, because once I know about it, I have to act.”
Often, people leave without addressing the issue.
This is no way to lead or run an organization.
I’ve had clients with MBAs struggling with situations like this.
Over the last twelve years working with organizations to improve communication to make open door policies really do what they are intended to do, I’ve identified 7 communication mistakes that get in the way.
They are called The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication.
This “open door policy” challenge is steeped in Communication Sin #7, A Lack of Directness & Candor.
If an organizational leader is experiencing any of the four open door policy scenarios identified above, it should be addressed directly because it is a symptom of a low trust workplace.
But, to make it work, there are right questions that must be asked in the right environment, otherwise it will backfire.
I would never advocate closing an open door policy because open doors, with open minds with an environment with high-trust and open communication is very healthy for work environments.
It’s just that most open door policies aren’t and are in need of a serious reboot.