Why Your Open Door Policy Fails and What To Do Instead

“Do you have a minute?”

This is the dreaded question that can leave you as a manager paralyzed with a difficult choice: you either can’t finish focusing on what you were working on (or about to run to), or you end up shutting down whatever important thing is on the mind of your team member. It can be a true rock and a hard place situation.

open door policy can put you between a rock and a hard place

This is just one of many reasons an open door policy can turn out completely differently than you hoped and intended.  While you imagined having cordial, timely discussions when it’s good for both of you, it can often lead to too many conversations missed and not enough discussion on critical topics.

An open door policy as your primary means of communicating with your team is a recipe for disaster. Here’s why.

Why Your Open Door Policy Fails

Many managers have tried relying on an open door policy, and for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked out as intended. Here’s a few of those reasons to consider for yourself and your team:

1) You won’t hear everything.

It sounds so sweet: “my door is always open.” You’re a friendly, approachable manager. Of course your team will come to you with any problem, right? Maybe not.

Ed Catmull, cofounder and President of Pixar tried to have an open door policy for his team as they made Toy Story. Unfortunately, as he discovered, it completely missed some critical problems. In his book, Creativity, Inc, he shares what happened:

Ed Catmull learned an open door policy didn't work

It turned out, the only way Catmull found out about major, frustrating issues from the production managers was when he proactively asked them.  Many were afraid to approach and didn’t want to appear to complain.

Much of Catmull’s amazing book is dedicated to how he pursued candor within the company so those discussions would happen.  An open door policy was not enough.

2) Your door is sometimes closed.

No one is at their desk every moment of the day. Whether you have meetings, are on a lunch or coffee break, need to talk to someone down the hall, or are running to the printer, there’s no guarantee you’ll be at your desk at the exact moment your team member is coming to talk to you.

Meetings are especially a killer of open door policies. While you may be back in a few minutes if you’re just down the hall, a meeting means you’re away for 30, 60, or more minutes. In that time a team member can walk by your desk, see you’re not there, give up waiting, go back to work and forget about what they were going to bring up.

As you rise in the ranks, this problem only gets worse. In analysis of a variety of research on time spent in meetings by professors at the University of Arizona and the University of Tulsa, it becomes clear managers spend a lot of time in them:

“The 3M Study [52] found that 25-80% of a typical manager’s time is spent in meetings. Doyle [13] found that typical middle managers spend around 35% of their work week in meetings and top mangers may spend as much as 50% of their time in meetings.

Mosvick and Nelson [53] found that the average technical professional or manager spends almost one-fourth (1/4) of their work week in meetings, top and middle managers may spend as much as two full days a week in meetings, and executive managers may spend four days a week in meetings.

Making matters worse, as the workplace becomes increasingly distributed, it can become even harder to reach you.

When part of your team is in another time zone, the range of time when you are both available becomes smaller, and those not in your office lack the luxury of seeing when you’re at your desk.  All it takes is you forgetting to change your availability in chat from “busy” to “available” and a remote worker will think your door is never open.

Despite the best of intentions, it can be hard to keep the promise of your door being open to them.

3) You’ll be unprepared and miss opportunities.

Given that most people aren’t very good at multi-tasking, it’s unlikely someone can walk in and interrupt what you’re doing and you will instantly recall their last drop in or important topic you discussed with them.

Preparation matters. If you come into a discussion with a clear mind and organized thoughts, you will get more out of it.

If instead you’re trying to just pause what you were working on long enough to deal with their situation, you may miss a lot. You need to be able to give your team your undivided attention.

One of the key skills of being a great manager is asking good questions. The only way to ask good questions is to be actively listening and have given real thought to their situation.

If you’re distracted by other thoughts, or your brain is still switching gears, it can be very difficult to be at your best in helping them spur of the moment.

This importance in asking questions is why Ben Horowitz wrote in his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

Open door policy won't help you be ready to ask questions like Ben Horowitz recommends

If an open door policy is your primary means of communication with your team, then you need to hold yourself to the same standard of asking good questions as Horowitz suggests in a one on one.

Unfortunately, because your team member can drop in any time, it’s very difficult to be prepared at all times.

Compounding matters, when your walk in discussions aren’t as effective, it discourages your team member from coming again when they need to discuss something. The longer you rely on an open door policy, the less helpful they’ll become.

4) You’ll hear about problems too late.

“A common rule we should always try to heed is to detect and fix any problem in a production process at the lowest-value stage possible.” – Andy Grove, former CEO & Co-founder of Intel

A key job of managers is to fix problems when they’re small. When an issue is minor, addressing it usually requires only a minor effort. When problems are allowed to fester and grow, the effort required to fix them does as well.

When you rely on an open door policy, it’s very easy for team members to feel they should *wait* to come to you with a problem until it’s worth your attention. That should be your judgment, not theirs.

The last thing you want is for a problem to spiral out of control. When that happens you end up in fire fighting mode. If you’re not careful, this will cascade into reactionary management where all you do is fight fires, and your team is always afraid to bring the next problem to you.

Your biggest hidden problem: Retention.

One of the most devastating problems is when someone on your team quits.  Rarely will someone come into your office and tell you they’re considering leaving. It’s only something you’ll find out if you have a regular dialogue with them, or only once they have a new job offer.

Jason Lemkin, former CEO of EchoSign and VC at Storm Ventures writes about just this problem in his post, “By the Time You Give Them a Raise, They’re Already Out the Door”:

open door policy doesn't work, you have to ask as jason lemkin says

And that’s the key: You have to ask. If you wait for them to come to your door, you’ll be asking too late. In today’s competitive job market, where it can cost over $65,000 to replace an employee, you can’t afford to wait.

5) There’s no accountability or rhythm.

When a team member comes to you with a problem, idea, feedback, or a request for help, they’re not just coming to talk. An important part of the process is making progress. Sometimes that means tasks for you, other times for them. Most likely, there are things for both of you to do.

The problem with an open door policy, is there’s no set time when you will touch base on what you discussed and the next steps you both agreed to. Without that check in at a set time in the future, a problem may be left to fester, or next steps procrasinated on and left incomplete. There’s no accountability.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Your team and you are grown ups, right? But think for a second:

  • How likely are you to remember what you talked about when they last stopped by 22 days ago?
  • If you don’t immediately do what you promised when they dropped by your desk, how likely are you to remember to do it?
  • When they do drop in next time with a new issue, do you remember to check in on what you were talking about last time?
  • Do you even have time when they randomly drop in to also cover something from the past? 

All of these issues contribute to damaging the value of coming by your open office.  It also misses out on one of the most powerful motivators at your disposal.

The Progress Principle

In a study of over 12,000 knowledge workers who kept daily diaries of their work and morale, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer were trying to answer the question of what motivates people.  What they found was simple yet powerful:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Meaningful progress applies to both their core job and exactly the kinds of topics they will come to you for help.

When you help them feel progress on a problem, a project they’re stuck on, an idea they’re dying to get to implement, or anything else you discuss, you tap into this principle in a positive way.  This creates a virtuous cycle, as the researches found:

“…if you facilitate their steady progress in meaningful work, make that progress salient to them, and treat them well, they will experience the emotions, motivations, and perceptions necessary for great performance. Their superior work will contribute to organizational success. And here’s the beauty of it: They will love their jobs.”

Who doesn’t want a team that loves their job?!?

Help your team feel progress by getting beyond the ad hoc, random open door policy. Bringing just a little bit of structure, consistency, and preparation can have a tremendous impact on how your team feels about their job.

What to do instead: Consistent, Regular 1 on 1s

The problem with your open door policy is not the conversations you have in them. The problem are all the issues we’ve covered above. Fortunately, the 1 on 1 fixes the vast majority of them.

Done right, a 1 on 1 is the single best investment you can make in your team. It’s why Andy Grove wrote:

one on ones are better than an open door policy

So knowing 1 on 1s are so valuable, how do you make them work better than an open door policy? You can read a comprehensive look at how Andy Grove recommends doing 1 on 1s, and here’s a few keys to start:

1) Agree on a set frequency of 1 on 1s.

Look for a time that works for both of you. Avoid interfering with their flow or either of your other work or travel needs.

Everyone usually has a good time for them to be in the mindset for this, whether it’s first thing in the morning, right after lunch, or at the end of the day when some others have left the office.

Frequency isn’t just about the time of day or day of the week you meet. It’s also important how often you meet.

You need to know when the next time you will meet will be. This creates the rhythm that brings consistency and accountability since you both know when you need to keep your promises.

So how often is often enough? Use Task Relevant Maturity to help decide.  This table captures the basics, which you read in depth here:

one on ones trump open door policy when you apply task relevant maturity

When you apply Task Relevant Maturity to your regular, consistent 1 on 1s, you’ll make the most of your time meeting with them and meet at the right frequency for a person’s abilities for their current responsibilities.

2) Be prepared and follow through

Sometimes team members are more skeptical than their managers about having regular 1 on 1s. It’s your job as manager to be prepared for the meeting so they see the value in them over time.

The best way to ensure the 1 on 1s are valuable from the start is to build a few habits:

  • Review notes from their previous 1 on 1 with you so you can pick up where you left off.
  • Bring good questions to ask of them so even if there’s no problems, the discussion is valuable. (These 100+ questions for 1 on 1s can help).
  • Keep your promises and hold them accountable to make progress on what’s discussed.

These are simple habits that are easy to let slip in practice, especially if you’re stuck doing all of this manually. If you want help with and to automate parts of your 1 on 1 workflow, software like Lighthouse can help.

3) Adapt to each person uniquely

Managing by one size fits all leads to all kinds of problems. Your introverts will not respond to the same things your extroverts will. The same is true for your veterans versus your newest team members.

Adapt to their needs. That may mean adapting your scheduling to what fits them, or it could be the location of your 1 on 1.

It can also relate to the topics covered. Some people will want to ambitiously progress in their career, while others want to broaden skills with the job they have.

The more you accommodate them in these areas, while holding firm on key values, the higher performing your team will become.  When you give a little for their needs, you may be surprised how much they’ll do for you.

An open door policy has the best of intentions. You want to be available and approachable to your people.

However, relying too much on it will rob you of great opportunities to improve morale and motivation of your team.

Only regular, consistent 1 on 1s can ensure you make time for everyone and make the progress that your team needs to excel.

Have you used an open door policy? Did one of your past managers? Share your story in the comments.