The Myth of the Open Door
A leader who actively makes themselves available and who demonstrates an open, curious, and supportive posture will signal to the team that they’re accessible and safe.
By Geoff Dueck Thiessen
“The open door policy doesn’t work!” The statement, from a colleague teaching a course on cooperative labour relations, hit me like a shock.
We’ve all heard it. “I have an open door policy. My employees know they can come talk to me about anything.”
How can that be a bad idea?
For team members to approach and then walk through the open door assumes some things. It means they feel confident, safe, credible, and strong enough to take the initiative to approach their leader.
I’ve heard it said that a workplace manager might be viewed by many employees in a similar way as a school principal. And how many students would have taken the initiative to go set up a meeting with their school principal?
“Come on now,” you say. “Adults are not kids in school. Surely, we’re all grown up and can muster the nerve to go talk to our boss!”
As a union representative, I can assure you that’s often not the case. The reality is that the leader who waits for the team to come talk to them will only hear from a small number of employees.
It’s a great gesture. Hiding behind a closed door is an obvious sign that a leader is inaccessible, so keeping it open is a big improvement.
But that might be like saying the unripe fruit is better than the rotten fruit. Being better than something bad doesn’t make it good.
And when the leader waits for the team to come see them, we might just be talking about unripe fruit. It doesn’t stink, but it also doesn’t taste good.
The open door policy can even be a soft way to abdicate responsibility. More and more, leaders are expected to carry an onus to inquire when they think their team members are struggling, particularly with mental health.
And if team members generally need to feel strong and confident to approach their manager, we need to assume someone struggling with mental health challenges is actually the least likely to approach their manager and cross that open door threshold.
A workplace leader recently asked me, “So, what am I supposed to do then?”
The answer is to go meet your team where they are. Reach out. Initiate. The leader was selected (hopefully) because they do have the skill, courage, and initiative to start a conversation.
The obvious trade-off is that waiting for the employee means the employee will be prepared for the conversation. So, when a leader initiates with a team member, there needs to be some sensitivity to the possibility that the team member might not be ready to be completely open.
A leader who actively makes themselves available and who demonstrates an open, curious, and supportive posture will signal to the team that they’re accessible and safe. And when that is established, the team will eventually see it’s okay to initiate too.