• Renea Skelton, PhD

Closed Open Door Policy

Commanders, supervisors, CEOs, you name it. It seems like the statement is always the same. When a new leader arrives to an organization, one of the first common messages that they deliver to the masses is: "I have an open door policy!" The one in charge gazes upon the room and sees that everyone is shaking their head in an assumed approval then proceeds with the rest of their announcements. But, what does an “open door policy” really mean to the organization? Is it a different meaning to the supervisor or CEO than to the organizational members, the ones that actually need the message? In most of my research, the answer is yes. The saying and doing seem totally off-balance. Organizational members basically find closed doors that wait upon their arrival. Why?

Many individuals are conditioned to hear statements and take them in a literal fashion. If you say that it is red, and I see that it is red, then it must be red! No argument, right?  An open door policy’s basic definition is that every manager’s door is open to every employee. The concept assumes that employees are free to talk with their leadership at any time for any reason. It seems pretty cut and dry. However, have you found yourself seeking out your supervisor or director to find out that they cannot speak with you because of a deadline that they are trying to meet (even though you see them clearly sitting in their office), they are attending another meeting, or they simply cannot accommodate the individual because of an outlier of some sort. How about encountering possibly the worst case scenario, you go to your leader’s door to find a huge sign that states: Knock if it is really important. Or have you encountered someone stopping you at the door (maybe the Director themselves) and asking you: have you talked with others before coming to see me? We see this in the military a lot. Many supervisors and commanders prefer if you use the chain of command prior to seeing them. Then, just like that…the door is shut. When the door is shut…trust cannot exist. I have witnessed many supervisors turn people away due to the above reasons. Consequently, individuals were confused, refused to attempt again, morale slowly decreased, and the leader was unaware of the ramifications and of the missed opportunities.

Informality can create a trap. A study conducted by the Center for Advanced Human Resources based at Cornell University found that out of 4,000 employees working in a Fortune 100 company, the perception of what an open door policy meant to the employees did not correlate to the CEO’s intent of the statement upon delivery. Over a three-month time-frame, the organization experienced low morale and declining trust in their leader. Many employees expressed that they did not feel as if they had a voice, and that they did not want to approach their organizational leaders because of the constraints of the many perimeters that the leader placed. In turn, retention rates quickly declined and the organizational leaders were mystified at what actually occurred.

So what can organizational leaders do?

Don’t create blanket statements. Clarify what you mean and deliver the message that you intend to deliver. What are you really trying to tell your organization? What do you want them to hear and to adhere to? What perimeters do you need for the expectation to be set? Do you accept anyone and everyone since the statement was made?

Go to THEIR door.

Additional questions that you can ask yourself are as follows:

1. What is an open door policy to me?

2. Can the individuals within my organization come see me at any time? If not, what are the hours that I can be consistently available?

3. Do I want to be the first stop or do I prefer them to use their chain of command prior?

4. Do I want them to present possible solutions when they confront me with their issue?

As an organizational leader, you should create an environment of accessibility, two-way conversation, information access, and closer working relationships. By encouraging an effective feedback policy, you are creating the first step in a culture geared towards respect and of value. Remember, be prepared that when you have the door open and the feedback occurs, you are in a space to allow it: listen, validate (much different than agreeing), and understand. This simple process builds a culture of trust. Within each organization, there has to be a real exploration of what you want to convey with the open door policy concept – not reactive but proactive. I am not talking about destroying the traditional chains of command but simply finding ways to complement them.

So, keep your door open…unless of course…that is not what you REALLY mean.

I welcome your feedback! Have you encountered a “closed” open door within your organization or have a policy that is solid? Share your experience and any strategies or conversations that occurred. As always, please feel free to share this article with anyone and everyone that can benefit!

- Renea Skelton, PhD