5 problems with your open door policy

Leaders underestimate how hard it can be to communicate openly with them

Many of us have heard it—or said it—before: "My door is always open." 

The problem is that leaders often underestimate how uncomfortable it can be for others to provide completely honest and genuine feedback to them.

Based on a recent study by organizational dialogue experts Megan Reitz and John Higgins, there are a few things you may be doing incorrectly when trying to establish an "open door policy" with your team or organization. Reitz and Higgins interviewed 60 senior-level leaders and rank-in-file employees at all different levels to learn more about their perspectives on the notion of "speaking up."

The researchers identified five common problems with the "open door policy" in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review.

  1. You don't show a genuine interest in your team's opinions: Are you known for being open to hearing different points of view from both the most junior and very senior employees? Reitz and Higgins suggest it may also be helpful to identify biases you might have toward hearing certain perspectives versus others.
  2. You react negatively when people are honest: Reitz and Higgins encourage leaders to think about how you react when someone questions or challenges you. Do you react adversely or do you show an interest in learning more about their approach? You might be sending nonverbal signs that you don't actually want an "open door policy."
  3. You overlook personal agendas or office politics: Beware of office sycophants who, after finding out you are in an influential role, will tell you something just to look better in your eyes.  Reitz and Higgins warn that these individuals may not be speaking up about what is truly happening within their role in the organization.
  4.  You have allowed yourself or others to reduce employees to labels: As the authors note, we often label colleagues as "CEO," "consultant," "woman," "young," "new," or "sales." However accurate, they can alienate employees who feel that they do not have the most advantageous labels, which can determine how comfortable they feel about speaking up.
  5. You aren't taking other steps to empower your team to speak up: Reitz and Higgins suggest small but meaningful conventions that can be implemented to encourage an "open door policy." For example, you might have casual dress days, initiate a "red card" that signals an opportunity to raise a challenge during meetings, or simply resist the urge to do all of the talking (Reitz/Higgins, Harvard Business Review, 3/9).

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