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What does “I have an open door policy” really mean?

Have you ever heard a people manager demonstrate his openness and receptivity toward his employees bragging “I have an open door policy“?

Open door policy

Open door policy

In theory, having an open door policy means that anyone can walk into their manager’s office to ask for advice, to request help, to bounce an idea, to propose a suggestion or simply to shoot the breeze.

In reality, I have rarely seen managers actually keep their door open – figuratively speaking. Once a people manager gets the opportunity to have his own office, he will implement obstacles along the way – close the door, hire an administrative assistant or pretend someone is about to come in for a meeting – to reduce to a minimum the number of disruptions.

Many managers with an open door policy would rather have their employees limit their number of visits and are certainly not interested in hearing suggestions that could increase their workload.

That behavior might be explained by the fact that people don’t realize the benefits of keep their door open. The importance of maintaining open, constant, and reliable channels of communication is a solid asset for any people manager.

Let’s push the open communication channel further and imagine what would happen if the manager was actually sitting with the employees. I’m not talking about a closed-office near the employees but a cubicle or a desk right there where the action is. If you wonder why someone would want to try this, you are probably working for an archaic organization and you are certainly not an agile manager.

Closed offices have become such a status symbol that most people couldn’t imagine moving up the rank without an appropriate office. Managers then start preferring their status symbol to obtaining reliable information quickly from their team members. Once the ego takes over, managers lose their strong information channels and then need to rely on other mechanism to remain efficient.

I personally believe that sitting with employees has some substantial benefits:

  • It brings the manager closer to the action – the manager will know quickly when something bad is happening or something good that needs to be recognized;
  • It brings the employees closer to the manager – information is more likely to move up and down the chain of command;
  • It includes the manager within the team – the perception of “the boss” versus “the employees” is lessened since the manager is physically part of the team;
  • It removes the psychological barrier of approaching the boss – there are no hurdles to cross, the boss is right there;
  • It immediately breaks the perception of classes – there are no evidence that some people are more important than others since nobody has obvious status symbols.

Granted, the manager’s attitude has a lot to do with the benefits obtained by this change but all things being equal, a manager that sits with his people is more likely to build a stronger team and implement strong communication channels.

A colleague of mine has actually pushed the concept further. Mathieu has come up with a more cleaver way of obtaining and disseminating information – he permanently sits in the company cafeteria. He uses an enclosed room for private conversations but most of the time he works in the cafeteria with his laptop where everyone can approach him.

Do you know how much valuable information Mathieu is getting?

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post!

    Let me offer you a video representation of your post:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4761187n%3fsource=search_video

    Eric

    November 18, 2009
    • Thank you Eric for the video. Indeed, it does show that there is no direct correlation between the “perks” given to executive and a company’s performance.

      November 19, 2009
  2. Thanks Martin for pointing me to this post and for your comment on my latest post about the strange things managers do (link: http://leadership.13apples.com/managers-do-the-strangest-things).

    Mathieu’s idea is brilliant and every Manager should learn from it. That’s what agile management is all about – breaking the walls of mistrust and embracing acts of open candid communication.

    Thanks for sharing!

    April 15, 2011
  3. D. Marc #

    This sounds great and all in theory but the reality is that most employees actually like the fact that their boss is separated from the main workspace by office walls. I mean, no matter how great your boss might be, nobody wants to sit right next to their boss or supervisor?!?! It makes for a stuffy, uncomfortable work environment where employees will surely feel like the boss is breathing right down their necks, even if this is not the case.

    The boss can have his/her office. There are other methods to improve communication/work place relations other than having the big bee sitting among the worker bees.

    December 18, 2012

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