Open Door Policy? Uh, yeah. Sure.


Time and time again an executive gives a state of the company speech to the huddled masses. It concludes with, “My door is always open! I’m here for you.” It’s a line met with skepticism and even disdain as many executives could less what their employees have to say. And even when the venue for free conversation is provided, it looks like a trap door. To ensure a truly open door, there’s a few ground rules that both executives and employees must follow for free-flowing and productive conversations.

For Executives

Don’t Promise A Closed Door is Open

Executives sometimes can’t dole out raises or extra PTO or costly incentives to drive better execution. So the comment, “I’m here for you” feels like something. But too often that something decays to nothing under careful examination. That open door remains closed as the executives cloister together on a certain floor and never mingle with rank and file employees. It’s better for morale to operate autocratically without the pretense of valuing employees’ input than to feign concern where none exists.

While an autocratic organizational structure doesn’t make sense for most high performing organizations, the autocratic style reduces complexity and may be appropriate when error-free outcomes or immediate decisions are required. If the organization chooses to operate autocratically, this decision should be made intentionally and not as a by-product of an executive’s personality.

Support the Managers

If the responsibility of freely venting one’s feelings to executives exists, then there’s a chance of that power being misused. Some form of the following scenario exists in many offices across America:

Eric’s manager Jan is at a training hundred of miles a way and so Eric stops by Jan’s manager Jim’s office.

“Hey, uh Jan’s out of the office, but I just didn’t really know who to talk to about my concern. Jan said she ordered the butterfly valves before she left…but I can find any evidence of that…not to throw her under the bus, but it just seems like this has been happening a lot.”

Jim’s not feeling great about last month’s financials and this particular obstacle causes his frustration to mount further. “Well, I can say this certainly isn’t the first time. I’ll talk to Jan immediately about this.”

The shared frustration creates a small bond. Over time, the watercooler talk about football and purchasing issues between Eric and Jim grows their bond and creates a wedge between Eric and his manager. Eric airs his grievances unchecked and Jim gives him a safe space to do so. Eventually, Jan’s authority is minimized and her ability to direct her group is compromised.

Gauge the Appropriate

An employee shouldn’t walk into an executive’s office and anticipate a sweeping solution to a complex problem. They typically want to be heard and hope for some concern to investigate, fix or alleviate the issue.

Let’s take a complaint about the shabby state of the communal office bathroom. Executives might respond with an overloaded, all hands on deck approach such as “That’s it, we are remodeling the bathrooms now!” Alternatively a pledge to clean the bathroom once a day probably works just as effectively and is a far easier commitment.

I once reported to a boss who became known as The Fixer. Any employee complaint received an immediate rectification plan. Yet, the number of commitments he made ensured he could never make good on even a fraction of them.

For Employees

Know the Game

Why go to an executive’s office to begin with? There should be a reasonable, non-political reason for doing so. Grumbling or subverting your boss isn’t a good call. General complaining doesn’t hold up well either. Bringing up specific, actionable concerns are best. The old adage, “don’t bring a problem without a solution” is overused and a crutch for lazy executives. For instance, if a Sales Manager isn’t getting the system uptime from Information Technology, it’s silly to expect Sales to devise a cloud infrastructure plan. Yet, the ethos of “don’t bring a problem without a solution” ensures employees don’t see their role as merely pointing out problems for the executive team to fix.

Be strategic. And given the organization is healthy, no doubt their goal is to win. To win customers, to win market share, to win the long term employment of their companies. Thus, structure any complaint and discussion around that goal. For instance, conversations about increasing compensation or instituting a 401K match should point back to the goal of the organization winning.

Regardless of a concern’s validity, don’t even bother walking into that office if the environment is dysfunctional. In that case, an employee’s task is simple. Do good work, avoid complaining, and find the right time to leave.

Offer Feedback Unrelated to the Ask

The best organizations take employee feedback into account when deploying large-scale initiatives. Decisions that look great in the ivory tower don’t always offer the originally projected benefits. And receiving feedback on new policies or a revamped approach invigorates executives who often push directives out to the team and then hear nothing in return.

Feedback should be straightforward and unbiased whenever possible. An executive has different view on the effectiveness of a SAP installation versus the inventory manager. Open discussion allows for insights into operational activity that may have never been considered.

Sharpen the Ask

What’s the ask? Make it clear, concise, and measurable. At the very least, ensure there is some type of action that can be followed up on. Let’s say you are the Fabrication Manager and looking for better PPE for visitors. Any meeting should end not with measurable steps and commitments on what’s next rather than a vague hand wave at organizational change.

Seeking a SMART goal as an outcome is a good framework to ensure the right topics are being discussed. Often that won’t happen on the first meeting and perhaps the request gets rejected out of hand. But by framing the ask in a way that allows for a SMART action plan greatly enhances the chances of success.