THE BLOG
05/16/2016 03:01 pm ET Updated May 16, 2017

How To Improve Your "Open Door" Policy

In part one of this two-part article, I explained why successful leaders don't have an open door policy (i.e., the practice of leaving their office doors "open" so that employees feel welcome to stop by at any time to meet informally, ask questions, or share feedback).

While the goals are noble, the disadvantages inherent to an open door policy include:

  • It puts the onus on an employee to have the professional courage to approach senior executives with an idea or issue to discuss.
  • Employees who overuse the privilege may become overly dependent on management to make decisions and solve problems, severely limiting opportunities for these individuals to develop their own abilities to do so.
  • Unscheduled interruptions reduce the focus and productivity of senior leaders, leaving them unable to get solid chunks of productive time completed.
  • In organizations where the hierarchy is especially important (such as the military or government), it degrades the chain of command.

So, what methods can be used to promote transparency, collaboration, and trust without the negatives that come along with leaving the door open?

Scheduled Office Hours

As we've established, traditional open door policies can quickly lead to major productivity losses for managers and executives. But what if a simple tweak could maintain all of the benefits of the open door policy, without being a productivity killer?

If your door is always open, even figuratively, you never know what your day is going to look like. In contrast, keeping the door open only during limited and pre-set times allows you to keep control, and prevents others from interrupting your flow. Additionally, by reducing the opportunities available, you force your people to trust their instincts on smaller matters and seek guidance or advice only if the issue is large enough.

Set The Ground Rules

Karen Baetzel, CEO of BattleAxe Consulting, spent 30 years in the US Navy as an aviator. She told me:

"I think the unqualified open door is an invitation to organizational turmoil. What I think is much better policy is a "half-open door", and when I was Commanding Officer, I would explain exactly what that meant. It meant you could come to me:

  1. When the traditional chain of command is not working the way you know it is supposed to work, not when you didn't get the answer you wanted
  2. When you think something unsafe, illegal or un-American is going on
  3. You understand the consequences of misusing or trivializing the privilege."

After Nick in Australia discovered that his wide-open door policy was leading to dependency, he implemented the "two solution" rule. He said:

"At the very least, all of our staff has now been made aware that they are never to come to management with a problem, unless they can propose two or three possible solutions. If they can't, I ask them to go away and come back to me when they can."

Hold Weekly One-on-Ones

When it comes to forging quality communication that benefits both you and your direct reports, there are few tools more powerful than the weekly, prescheduled one-on-one.

Scheduled one-on-ones take away the "unexpected" element of an open door policy, and provide a predictable cadence to your interactions. Amelia will be less likely to barge in unannounced on Thursday or Friday when she knows she has a standing check-in with you each Monday.

Just remember that the one-on-one is actually the employee's meeting. You're here for them. Routine topics may include any new developments since last week's check-in and their tasks for the upcoming week, and of course how you can help them.

Further, these weekly meetings enable you to build rapport and to stay in touch on big personal items on an ongoing basis. As a type-A introvert, none of my team members would ever consider me warm and fuzzy. But my first question every Monday is usually a simple, "How was your weekend?"

Keep A Schedule Of Group Meetings

Although the one-on-one is of primary importance, it's just one piece of an effective communication cadence. Additional meetings should include:

  • Weekly team meetings
  • Monthly division meetings
  • Quarterly all company town halls

The goal is to build a scheduled rhythm of communication that encompasses all employees, no matter how "high" your position in the hierarchy is. These group meetings provide information or context to all team members. Individuals will be less likely to walk in unscheduled to ask you about how sales are going, or what's the status of the software rollout or other items.

The Takeaway

In case you still have reservations about shutting your open door, perhaps you should consider this feedback from Melinda, who sums it up best:

"I prefer my boss and even my colleagues to keep their doors closed when they are so busy they don't have time to talk. I would rather have their wholehearted attention when I have something to discuss with them than feel that their door is 'open all the time.' Open doors do not equal open minds."