When your open door policy is bad leadership


“Just reach out if you need anything.”

“I’m here if you have any questions.”

“My door is always open.”

Chances are you’ve said one, two, or all of these things as a leader of the people. And it is very likely that you not only said them, but you meant them. After all, being available to your colleagues for questions, concerns, and challenges is part of helping them navigate everything from return-to-work conversations to office politics.

Moreover, so many of us have thwarted our own efforts and involvement by micromanagers that we may be wary of repeating the pattern with our direct reports. And so we use “My door is always open” as code for “I don’t want to micromanage you, but I also don’t want to wave you.” We want to be helpful and supportive, and making ourselves available to them is an easy way to do that.

However, an open door policy is only useful if you can actually live up to its intent. Far too often we invite our colleagues to ask questions or share opinions when the time or place is not right. By placing the responsibility on others to approach us instead of thinking strategically about what they need, we may be running under the lead — which can be just as damaging as micromanaging.

In our book, Go to Help: 31 Strategies for Offering, Asking and Accepting HelpMy co-author Sophie Riegel and I share three situations where you might need to help in a different way, rather than just providing an open (physical or virtual) door:

1) Your colleague lacks the knowledge, skills or experience to complete the task. For example, if your sales manager doesn’t know how to use their updated CRM software, they need practical, directive instructions to learn how. “Come to me with questions” is not helpful if someone has nothing but ask.

Help instead? Give them training and time to process the new information. Give them examples of what success looks like and develop a plan that will help them learn and practice their new skills. Anticipate the questions they may have and check in regularly to provide feedback on their progress.

2) Compliance is more important than commitment. If you expect your team members to comply with the company’s mandate to get vaccinated before returning to the office, telling your employees that your door is always open for questions or concerns about this can be misleading. It may signal that this policy is open to discussion or negotiation, which it is not.

Another version of this is when you’ve decided there’s a right or wrong way to do something. If you expect your colleague to follow a specific process or take a tried and true approach, your “open door policy” is partially closed – at least to questions or suggestions for doing things differently.

How you can help instead: Communicate the why behind the decision – and also expect that not everyone will be happy. Let people know what’s open for discussion and negotiation (e.g. they can provide proof of vaccination at any time within an eight week period, or choose to work from home for the next six months if they decide not to get vaccinated yet ).

Also explain what is not acceptable (such as only coming to the office for client meetings if they are not vaccinated, or complaining about the policy at every supervision interview). Communicating expectations honestly, openly, and consistently and giving people the opportunity to “disagree and commit” will help you more than give people false hopes.

3) If a decision has to be made immediately or if there is a crisis. There has been a security breach in the building. Everyone should leave the office immediately and gather in the parking lot next door for the next set of instructions. Offering an open door policy to questions can delay an urgent mandate when you want people to act now and ask questions later.

How you can help instead: Make sure your verbal (message), vocal (tone of voice), and visual (body language) cues all match the seriousness or immediacy of the situation. If they don’t match, people are more likely to ignore the content of what you say in favor of visual cues.

Tell people clearly and repeatedly what to do, when and why. You may also need to tell them that you can’t answer questions at this time (or that you don’t know more than what you’ve shared with them), but that you will be available to discuss and debrief at a later date.

This is what I personally experienced while evacuating my office building in Manhattan on 9/11, right after watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center through my window. Our leader said that there had been an attack on the Twin Towers and that we should immediately exit the building via the stairs and go into the city – away from the chaos. She also explained that she didn’t have any more information than that, but that she would be reaching out to us later that day or evening to share the next steps about reopening the office – which she did. And indeed, in the days that followed, she made herself available for discussion, debriefing, care, and compassion above anything she’d likely experienced before.

We all want to have helpful leaders – and be helpful leaders. Knowing what kind of help to give isn’t as easy as leaving our doors open. A wide variety of beneficial practices are needed to avoid micromanaging or under-management.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is co-author of Go to Help: 31 Strategies for Offering, Asking and Accepting Help.


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