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Institutional barriers to effective workplace communication, while relatively easy to identify, are certainly hard to disassemble and take out of practice.
The open door policies of the 1980s may have given way to today’s open offices and open floor plans, but the crux of open door policies isn’t about the door. The underlying principle is that leaders provide transparency and encourage feedback and open communication by listening to their employees’ concerns and ideas.
With open door policies, the barriers and layers of bureaucracy of outdated corporate mindsets are supposedly removed, creating a smoother flow of information and encouraging both bottom-up and top-down communication.
And these policies work—to an extent.
In a recent Gallup poll, only 17 percent of those surveyed strongly agree that there's open communication throughout all levels of their companies. As Emily Ciavolino points out in “How to Proactively Build a Strong, Engaging Culture,” there are at least four downsides to an open door policy:
1. It’s hard for employees to speak up.
In some instances, employees know their company’s open door policy exists but they don’t take advantage of it because the burden of raising concerns is on them. Managers with open door policies can unintentionally create scenarios in which employees are apprehensive of and intimidated by lopsided power dynamics.
2. The things employees need are difficult to ask for.
For example, an employee may not ask for recognition because she feels awkward revealing that she wants to be appreciated.
3. Employees don’t always know what to ask.
Employees may be unhappy at work but don’t know how to express their frustration.
4. It’s easier for employees to leave than create change.
Moving on to another job or career can feel easier than bringing issues to a manager’s attention.
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While it’s still beneficial to have open door policies in place, there are many other ways to improve communication and break down barriers between departments. To maximize the impact of your company’s open door policy, consider adding these four elements:
1. Let them see you open the door.
Make it a point to reiterate your open door policy. In “7 Easy Ways to Solve High Employee Turnover,” George Dickson states, “The key to sparking these crucial conversations is to bake them into everyday life in your organization.”
On an almost daily basis, there may be an employee who would like to discuss something that could save the company money, prevent a future accident, or help close a crucial sale, but doesn’t know the steps to communicating the message. Regularly reinforcing the importance of clear, open lines of communication provides employees with an environment where they're more apt to speak up.
2. Eliminate obstacles that may be silencing employees.
Ask yourself how your actions may be silencing others and strive to eliminate any barriers that you find. Does your title of CEO, manager, supervisor, etc., prevent others on your team from utilizing the open door policy?
If so, it’s time to increase team activities and train employees to view everyone as their teammates. Be creative and have fun finding ways to eliminate all barriers to the policy.
For example, Walmart uses the term “Associates” for all its employees, including the CEO. Zappos, a leader in eCommerce, has the following as one of its core value statements: “Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication.”
Create a similar value statement for your company to instill the message that communication is a real company priority.
3. Lay the ground rules.
One way to keep the open door policy productive for you and your team is to set the tone for the policy from the beginning. In a 2016 Forbes interview, former US Navy aviator Karen Baetzel revealed that she had a half-open door policy, meaning she encouraged her reports to talk to her in the following instances:
- When the traditional chain of command is not working the way you know it is supposed to work, not when you didn’t get the answer you wanted;
- When you think something unsafe, illegal, or un-American is going on; or,
- If you understand the consequences of misusing or trivializing the privilege
Your ground rules may differ from Baetzel’s, but the principle remains the same. Having open door hours — perhaps your door is only “open” between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or only on Tuesdays and Thursdays — is one option. Tweak the rules to fit your organization and then communicate these rules to everyone.
4. Train leaders to be more human.
In some corporations that pride themselves on having open door policies, the open door leaders may have never said a word to some of their employees. As Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) points out, it’s important for company leaders to take the time for informal communication with their team.
Entrepreneur and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar kept a plaque on his desk that faced visitors and read, “Give me something positive today.” What a lot of people didn’t know about the plaque is that on its other side, the side facing Mr. Ziglar, it read, “Give them something positive today.”
Without some kind of relationship-building, any stated open door policy is just window dressing. Depending on the number of employees in your department, make plans to take employees out to lunch or for coffee and get to know them. If you take an honest interest in them, they will see you as human and approachable and be more likely to trust you when genuine issues arise.
Will you follow up?
Even when a manager listens to what an employee has to say, there is no guarantee that the manager will take action. Without some level of accountability, an open door policy is rendered useless if it doesn’t prioritize feedback, follow-up, or action.
Since the purpose of the open door policy is to help drive positive change, an employee’s comments must be met with a solution. Without action, the open door policy loses its value proposition and its ability to build a culture of trust and collaboration is diminished.
As Ciavolino suggested, it is hard for employees to speak up — not simply because they might feel intimidated, but also because they experience real fear. Employees take a risk by crossing the threshold of a leader’s office. In a March 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Megan Reitz and John Higgins discuss their findings that “risk awareness,” the awareness of the consequences of speaking up, is very real.
Open door policies encourage employees to challenge authority, a proposition that goes against traditional organizational norms. In the aforementioned Harvard Business Review article, legendary film producer Sam Goldwyn is quoted as saying: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.” Many employees are acutely aware of — and deservedly wary of — such a risk.
On the other hand, if employees take advantage of open door policies, executives and managers may find that they spend most of their days fielding their employees’ concerns. If leaders see their own productivity dropping, they might try to “close” the open door and even lock it.
With the inherent limitations of open door policies, it is imperative to have many modes of open communication in place. Combined with other great communication tools, such as company newsletters, one-on-one meetings, weekly project meetings, and modern intranets, open door policies offers a good faith approach to management.
If you're ready to take the next step toward building a stronger organizational culture, check out our latest guide: