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When your open-door policy is bad leadership

It takes a wide range of helpful practices to truly empower your teams for success, this leadership communication expert says.

When your open-door policy is bad leadership
[Source photo: Phil/Unsplash]

“Reach out if you need anything.” 

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“I’m here if you have questions.”

“My door is always open.”

Chances are, you’ve said one, two, or all of these things as a people leader. And it’s highly likely that you not only said them but you meant them. After all, being available to your colleagues for questions, concerns, and challenges is part of helping them navigate everything from return-to-work conversations to office politics.

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Furthermore, so many of us have had our own efforts and engagement thwarted by micromanagers that we may be wary of repeating the pattern with our direct reports. And so, we use “My door is always open” as code for “I don’t want to micromanage you, but I also don’t want to leave you flailing.” We want to be helpful and supportive, and making ourselves available to them is a simple way to do that.

However, an open-door policy is helpful only if you can actually deliver on its intent. Far too often, we offer an invitation for our colleagues to ask questions or share opinions when it may not be the time or the place. By putting the responsibility on others to approach us rather than us thinking strategically about what they need, we may be under-leading—which can be every bit as harmful as micromanaging.

In our book, Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help, my coauthor Sophie Riegel and I share three situations where you may need to help in a different way, rather than just offering an open (physical or virtual) door:

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1) Your colleague lacks the knowledge, skills, or experience to accomplish the task. For example, if your sales manager doesn’t know how to use their updated CRM software, they need hands-on, directive instruction to learn how. “Come to me with any questions” isn’t helpful when someone has nothing but questions.

How to help instead: Provide them with training, and the time to process the new information. Give them examples of what success looks like, and develop a plan for them to learn and practice their new skills. Anticipate the questions they may have, and check in frequently to give feedback on their progress.

2) Compliance is more important than commitment. If your expectation is that your team members comply with the company’s mandate to get vaccinated before they return to the office, telling your employees that your door is always open to questions or concerns about this may be misleading. It may send a signal that this policy is open to discussion or negotiation, which it may not be.

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Another version of this is when you’ve decided that there’s a right way or wrong way to do something. If you expect your colleague to follow a specific process or use a tried-and-true approach, your “open-door policy” is partially closed—at least to questions or suggestions about doing things differently.

How to help instead: Communicate the why behind the decision—and also expect that not everyone will be happy. Let people know what is open to discussion and negotiation (for example, that they can submit proof of vaccination anytime within an eight-week period, or that they can choose to work from home for the next six months if they decide not to get vaccinated yet).

Also, explain what is not acceptable (such as showing up to the office just for client meetings if they’re not vaccinated, or complaining about the policy on every supervision call). By communicating expectations honestly, openly, and consistently, as well as giving people the opportunity to “disagree and commit,” you’re being more helpful than giving people false hope.

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3) When a decision needs to be made immediately or there’s a crisis. There’s been a building security breach. Everyone needs to exit the office immediately and gather in the parking lot next door for the next set of instructions. Offering an open-door policy for questions may slow an urgent mandate down when you want people to act now and ask questions later.

How to help instead: Make sure your verbal (message), vocal (tone of voice), and visual (body language) cues all match to reflect the gravity or immediacy of the situation. If they don’t match, people are more likely to ignore the content of what you’re saying in favor of visual cues.

Tell people clearly and repeatedly what they need to do, by when, and why. You may also need to tell them that you cannot take questions right now (or that you don’t know more than what you’ve shared with them), but that you’ll be available to discuss and debrief at a later time.

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This is what I personally experienced while evacuating my Manhattan office building on 9/11, right after watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center through my window. Our leader said that there had been an attack on the Twin Towers, and we were to exit the building immediately via the stairs, and to head uptown—away from the chaos. She also explained that she had no more information than that, but that she’d be in contact with all of us later that day or evening to share next steps about the office reopening—which she did. And indeed, in the days following, she made herself available for discussion, debrief, care, and compassion beyond anything she had likely experienced before.

We all want to have helpful leaders—and be helpful leaders. Knowing what kind of help to give isn’t as simple as leaving our doors open. It takes a wide range of helpful practices to avoid micromanaging or under-leading.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is coauthor of Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help.

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