Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

We know. We have a flair for the dramatic. How can anyone argue against an OPEN DOOR policy that’s been the staple of organizational life for the better half of four decades? We can, and we will.

Several years ago, one senior manager proudly boasted how many employees used his OPEN DOOR policy. Clearly, we weren’t impressed, and he could sense that. We talked. So, here’s our stance...

We apply a correlational logic here that is tough to argue against. We’ve found that when an OPEN DOOR policy is in high use, organizational health is down. The reason for this is the second, important correlation. When an OPEN DOOR policy is in high use, the strength of the chain-of-command weakens. The reasoning is rather straightforward—when employees find that they can get answers to their problems and get those answers quickly, their need for the direct supervisor wanes in importance. The thinking goes—why should I waste time with my direct supervisor when I can go straight to the top? Of course, this further weakens the chain-of-command because the direct supervisor is now left out of the informational loop; employees aren’t sharing their concerns or problems with them, they are sharing only at the top. Pulling this thread of logic to its natural end, we arrive at a sad conclusion—emphasizing (and the heavy use that follows) an OPEN DOOR policy erodes or neuters the power of first line supervisors and above. Even initiated with the best of intentions, this policy can irreparably harm lower levels of leadership and organizational functioning.

What’s one to do, then? We aren’t advocating the absolution of this sacred cow. However, we do stand for modifying it. After all, there is a reason for an OPEN DOOR policy, and contrary to the dominant logic, it is not to fix employee problems at their level. Rather, the essence of OPEN DOOR policies, especially in high-hazard organizations, is that employees can raise safety or ethics concerns where there is a legitimate lack of confidence or responsiveness or a fear of reprisal from the immediate chain of supervision. Only rarely should operational or employee-centric problems be raised during an OPEN DOOR session. Knowing this is important, and fixing this becomes easy. The next time that an employee walks through your OPEN DOOR, the first question a leader should ask is—have you raised this with your direct supervisor? If NO is the reply—unless the concern is the exception mentioned above—that is the end of the conversation; the dictum should be for the employee to engage her supervision. If the answer is YES, and there was a lack of satisfactory follow-up, we recommend that the leader probe into the next level of hierarchy—have you raised this with your supervisor’s boss? Only after those two questions are satisfactorily answered, do we recommend, engaging in a dialogue with the employee.

Many view the rationale of OPEN DOOR policies to enhance the approachability and accessibility of senior leaders. This is a superficial reason; it isn’t good enough. Especially, in high-risk/high-hazard organizations, efforts should always be made to strengthen—never weaken—the chain-of-command. Think about this the next time we boast about the frequency of use of our OPEN DOOR policy. Far from a good thing, it is a sign that organizational leadership is weakening.

By the way, our DOOR is always OPEN. For more leadership tips that are guaranteed to unlock tremendous value, please knock on Robin Bichy’s door. The best way to do that is at robin@elpadvantage.com.