It’s a familiar scene — a new leader makes their introductory remarks to the organization and emphasizes they have an open door policy. Having heard this from countless leaders, it has almost become an expectation — a strange rite of passage. It typically sounds something like this, And please know, I have an open door policy. I care about each and every one of you, and my door is always open.
Quite frankly, the term has become somewhat of a cliché. Most of us have come to realize the door isn’t always open. In fact, the door is often guarded, or at the least, has a heavy screen door in front of it. To be honest, that’s to be expected. Leaders have a great deal of responsibilities and often oversee multiple functions. Their time is a valuable commodity, so a truly open door would be counterproductive.
To protect their time, leaders will often make caveats about their open door policy. They will ask people to work issues at the lowest level possible and coordinate with their immediate supervisor before elevating the issue to the leader’s level. Another screening device is to have quiet hours in which the leader will not be disturbed. And of course, there’s often a secretary or an administrative section who may screen visitors and control the flow of people able to access the open door.
I think most of us have come to expect that. In fact, we understand the demands on our leaders and value their time. Well, at least most of us do. The real point, however, isn’t how open or screened the door is, but rather how receptive the leader will be when someone does get inside the door.
Let’s face it; if you’ve made it through my supervisory chain and past the watchdog outside the leader’s door at just the right time and moment of availability and finally got all the way into the big office, you’re expecting big things! It’s not just the leader’s time we’re after — we want their attention and their power to make things happen. Yes, we’re expecting big things.
If leaders have any semblance of an open door policy, it’s imperative they also have an open mind policy. Inviting them in the room isn’t enough. People are coming to you with their concerns and their ideas — issues they believe are important enough to elevate to your level. How the leader responds makes all the difference in not only how successful that open door policy is, but also in how much people will trust and forward concerns in the future.
Nothing will shut down the flow of communication between a leader and their organization quicker than showing the mind is closed. Perhaps it’s the non-verbals: the constant looking at a watch or glancing back to the computer screen every time there is a ding from the arrival of a new e-mail. Perhaps it’s the look of indifference. Or perhaps, it’s the lack of any substance or follow up to the concerns. If the mind was closed before the person even came through the door, everyone’s time has been wasted, and most likely, the employee is left feeling de-valued.
I highly doubt that would ever be a leader’s intention, but it can easily happen. Following are some tips and reminders on how to avoid this outcome and make the most of your personal open door policy:
- Clarify your policy. People often hear what they want to hear, and an open door policy will mean different things to different people. It’s important to manage expectations and clearly state your policy for access. You know the demands on your time. Work with your administrative staff – if you’re fortunate enough to have one – to ensure they understand the policy and any exceptions you may have.
- Get out from behind your desk more often. One of the best ways to lower the number of office calls is to be proactive and go out and see your people in action. Having a pulse on how people feel and perceive issues goes a long way in mitigating problems. Visiting the workcenters is also a great way to build esteem in the employees. Don’t forget to be genuine!
- Prepare for office visits. If someone is coming through the open door, be as prepared as possible. Certainly, any advance information would be helpful, but more importantly, be prepared to actively listen. If possible, move away from the desk so distractions will be minimized. Make the person feel as comfortable as possible. Take notes if necessary. Remember, while not all issues may be important to you, they are obviously important to the person visiting.
- Be honest. Seems like a given, but it’s still a good reminder. Sometimes people will ask for things you can’t give. Perhaps an employee is asking for a recommendation you don’t believe they deserve or is asking to try a new approach that isn’t feasible. Transparency and good old honesty may hurt, but it’s necessary.
- Follow up. Whether the visit was to seek advice, address a problem, seek your support or a host of other reasons, check back with the person when needed. Tying up loose ends and ensuring the person got what they needed is another way to show you value the individual. Again, your time is valuable, so if nothing else, a quick e-mail can do the trick.
At the end of the day, leaders are rarely judged by the openness of their door, but rather more so by the amount of engagement they are willing to provide. The open mind will outweigh an open door every time.
Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.