Smashing Down Your Open Door Policy

By David Hassell

In some companies approaching the executive is like walking up to the Wizard of Oz, his gigantic floating head and flaming pillars striking fear into those who dare to disturb him. With an open door policy, the onus is on the employee, who will probably be intimidated and unlikely to accept the offer to step past the threshold.

Besides, many modern organizations don’t even have walls, let alone doors to walk through. Open floor plans  are being used to make teams feel more cohesive, open, and transparent– with everyone from entry-levels to executives working in the same space.

No matter what your business model, open door policies in the modern workplace are outdated relics. Want transparency, a satisfied and productive workforce, and a way to generate new ideas? Smash down your open door policy and create an open door culture instead.

Listening is only half the battle

Employees want the opportunity to openly and honestly discuss everything with management — team dynamics, problems with the physical environment, or lack of clear direction. When an employee does come to you with questions, complaints or to ask for advice, your attention and follow-up are paramount.

The open door policy is rendered mute when managers or directors are uninterested in the information being shared. And even if you are listening, failure to ever act on feedback makes it pointless to the employee that went out on a ledge to offer it in the first place.

Once you get a reputation for not listening or acting, your best talent will go looking for a management team that will. An open door culture is sustained through progressive change that is the outcome of honest communication being truly heard.

Letting it all hang out

We created a culture of transparency, to address issues as a team without focusing on blame or ego. Our weekly 15Fives allow all stakeholders to see an employee’s feedback, from their direct manager up to senior management and executives.

Transparent culture allows people to:

1) bring their whole selves to work

2) operate in an intentional environment of feedback.

That environment was established for employees to naturally feel inclined to speak up and be valued for their unique perspectives. Whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the culture part comes in the form of values — the value to honor people’s opinions, truly listen, acknowledge and follow through on appropriate action.

I am not saying that all walls should literally be broken down and every employee should have complete visibility into every aspect of the business. There must be balance between transparency and privacy. Provide enough information so that all members of the team feel like they’ve been hired into a unique and valued place on the team.

But you must also know what to keep private and when to recognize when an employee is seeking confidentiality. Giving employees potentially troubling information that they are powerless to act upon can be extremely stressful and damage team morale. On the flip side, not every employee is prepared to speak through a megaphone.

Going over my head

While cohesion and egalitarianism are great, there must be structure in place for the flow of information. Employees want to be heard, but they also want to know that change is coming or an explanation as to why it isn’t.

If you really want to be available in a meaningful way, ask the important questions directly to your team and make sure an effective trickle up transparency system is in place so you don’t get overwhelmed. The most direct managers should always be looped-in because they are best equipped to respond quickly to the feedback.

Our reporting structure allows each department to ask questions of specific teams. We don’t wait for them to come to us, we go to them. This is incredibly valuable in fostering a culture of transparency.

The CEO or manager takes the onus off the employees who now feel like they are being heard at the highest level necessary to affect change. No-one feels that an employee has gone over their head to complain at a boss, and issues are surfaced before they become blown-out problems.

What do you think?

I am always willing to listen to feedback, but I am not always able to immediately act upon it. So the employee comments that really drive change are the ones that are accompanied by a solution.

This shows insight and leadership, and I am more likely to do something about an issue when the employee offers to work with me towards a resolution. Part of fostering a transparent culture involves letting employees know that along with complaints, solution-oriented ideas are just as welcomed.

Today’s top companies are not just places of employment, they are like a second home to the people who work there. Paying someone more or changing their title is not as effective as listening to what they have to say and then taking action. Success is built upon the trust, respect, and transparency that permeates every aspect of your business, not just the occasional “open-door” conversation.

Image Credit (cropped): Patrick Denker

How is candid employee feedback encouraged (or shunned) at your company?


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