I could not even begin to count how many times I have heard, when in a coaching session with a leader or a meeting with a senior management team, “I have and open door policy.” It’s become such a buzz phrase to say this, that it’s almost become meaningless. It’s kind of like one of those trucks with the logo of a construction company or developer on the door, where it reads, “honesty” as a value on the vehicle wrapping. When everyone says it, it doesn’t actually mean anything. Seeing “honesty” in a list of buzz words on the side of a truck doesn’t actually give me confidence to suggest that company is any more honest than the next one. Nor does suggesting you have an “open door policy” get me excited for the people in your organization.
What is interesting to me is that so many people actually think that what is meant by an open door policy is that when you are sitting in your office working, the door is left ajar rather than fully closed, as if this is supposed to be an invitation for people in the company to enter and have open and honest dialogue about the issues affecting them, their work and their accountability’s. This is not an “open door.”
So, what is an open door policy? For starters, it has nothing to do with a door. If nobody in your company has come to you with a legitimate concern, suggestion or a challenge for you in your role, then sorry, you don’t have an open door. An open door means that people not only feel safe, but they feel that you admire and actually value their input – even when it’s not what you want to hear. If nobody disagrees or challenges and all you hear is that everything is just fine in your workplace, I think you’re missing it. Moreover, if you truly have an open door, you are inviting people to come and speak frankly with you and they sense your keen desire – they don’t have to seek you out – you draw it out and the culture is one in which they actually can’t keep it in!
You simply cannot spend as much time doing as many things in as close proximity as you do with people at work, and not have challenges and issues. Whether interpersonal or role and task related, you better have bumps in the road or you’re probably not doing anything significant. The only other alternative is that people are not being real and honest, as the environment is one in which they cannot be. It is incredible how many leaders will say, “I have an open door policy and he never came to tell me that was an issue…” and they are actually surprised. So, what does it take to have an “open door”? I think it takes 5 things:
- Genuine care and empathy for the people on your team
- Humility and a hunger to learn from others
- An ability to be emotionally present with others, particularly when their emotions are high
- An ongoing invitation to others to challenge the status quo and to find better ways to do the things you do, in order to get better outcomes
- And long before any of these things can manifest, it requires you to be willing to be the dumbest person in the company and as such, you surround yourself with people who can run circles around you
Cameron’s Call to Action
- Consider, do you truly have an open door? Not a physical door, but an ever invitation for people to challenge you and make you better as a leader?
- Conduct a brief confidential staff survey where you ask them about their likelihood to speak “truth to power” – including you.
- If you haven’t done so recently, pick a dozen or so key individuals in your company and meet with them one-on-one over the next several weeks. Ask them to tell you what they know that you don’t, even if they think you don’t want to hear it.
Cameron is an Executive Coach and Consultant specializing in business growth and workplace mental health.