Why An Open-Door Policy Doesn’t Always Work (and How It Can Hurt You)
Updated: Feb 24
Last year, I was invited to be an on-air guest for a local radio show in Los Angeles, CA. The program host wanted to take 5 minutes and help his listeners resolve workplace issues with their leaders. The segment was called, "What to do when you have a leader who practices management without a license?"
The last caller of the segment passed along an experience that we all can learn from. She said she had a leader who preached an open-door policy. In other words, if any employee had a problem, they were welcome to come into their boss's office and discuss. She warned, this sounded good in theory but held no water.
She mentioned that prior to going to her boss's office, she had been reluctant to complain about another employee's performance because she did not want to be perceived as a complainer. Yet, the problem she had was something that had been on her chest for the longest time, and she could not wait to get rid of it.
She knocked on her boss' door and the boss invited her to sit down. She began to tell her boss that another employee was not doing what they should be doing. They were not doing their share on a group project that the team had been assigned to work on together. While she was complaining to her leader, the leader simply sat back in his chair, arms folded, and appeared to be preoccupied with something on his desktop. After lodging her complaint, the leader simply looked at her, asked her to work out the problem with the other employee, and then turned his attention to his desktop. As the stunned employee left his office, he thanked her for sharing her feelings.
She said her jaw just dropped in amazement. First, he did not appear to be the least bit interested in what she had to say, and second, by asking her to approach the other employee, she was being asked to do the leader's job. On the air, the employee said, "If I wanted to approach others and let them know they have not been doing their share, I would have signed up to be a leader." She continued, "If I confronted the other employee, I would now fear retribution." As she finished up her phone call, she asked, "John, how can I trust an open-door policy and fear it as well?"
Here was my advice to the caller. Leaders, when an employee is coming to you about another employee's productivity, they are doing your job. When an employee is coming to you about another person's productivity, they're passing along their opinion, which is an unsubstantiated fact. Thus, leaders go out and see it for yourself, and if you are that uncomfortable with the other person's performance, you can confront them based on what you have observed versus what another employee stated. Leaders who pit team members against one another will wind up with many team members eating by themselves over lunch and breaks. In a short period of time, I am sure this leader will complain about how his team lacks teamwork too! I wonder why?
I encouraged the caller to let the leader know she was uncomfortable about confronting another employee over their performance. I encouraged her to let her boss know that he needed to confirm her opinion of the employee's performance, and she would appreciate it if the boss left her name out of any discussion he had with the employee. Sidenote: If this employee had a problem with the other employee's behavior, the best two people to work it out would be the two employees versus the leader getting involved.
What's the moral of the story? Leaders, you can claim you have an open-door policy all day long. But if the consequence of complaining about another's performance is to be asked to work out the problem themselves, you will find your team members becoming insecure in their position. Insecure employees make choices to go on Indeed.com and look for another job. As the radio show host wrapped up my 5-minute guest appearance, he said, "John, you are right, Leaders are made, not born." I simply replied, "Yes, there are many leaders in all professions who practice management without a license. Some just don't know what they don't know."