“Please contact me if you need anything.”
“If you have any questions, I’m here.”
“My door is always open.”
Maybe you said one, two, or all of these things as a leader of people. And not only did you say them, but it’s likely that you meant them. After all, making your colleagues available about questions, concerns, and challenges is part of helping them navigate everything from return-to-work conversations to internal politics.
In addition, many of us may be wary of repeating this pattern under our direct reports, as micromanagers have hampered our own efforts and involvement. So use “my door is always open” as the code “I don’t want to keep you in control, but I don’t want to keep you angry.” We want to be helpful and supportive. Making them available is an easy way to do that.
However, open door policies are only useful if you can actually achieve that intent. Too often, we offer invitations to ask questions and share ideas with colleagues when it’s not the time or place. We can be underlead by taking responsibility for approaching others rather than thinking strategically about what we need. This can be as harmful as micromanagement.
In our book “Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help,” co-author Sophie Riegel and I not only provide open (physical or virtual), but also assist in other ways. We share three situations that need to be done. )door:
1) Colleagues lack the knowledge, skills, or experience to perform the task. For example, if a sales manager doesn’t know how to use the updated CRM software, they need practical instructions to learn how to do it. “Come to me if you have any questions” doesn’t help if someone has only a question.
An alternative way to help: provide training and time to process new information. Give examples of success and plan to learn and practice 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 team members expect to comply with the company’s obligation to be vaccinated before returning to the office, telling employees that they are always open to questions and concerns about this is a misunderstanding. You may be invited. It may signal that this policy is open to discussion or negotiation, but it may not.
Another version of this is if you decide that there is a right or wrong way to do something. The “Open Door Policy” is partially closed if you expect your colleagues to follow a specific process or use a proven approach. At least, I don’t have any questions or suggestions about doing it the other way around.
How to help instead: Tell the reason behind the decision. We also expect that not everyone will be satisfied. Inform people that there is room for discussion and negotiation (for example, if you can submit a vaccination certificate at any time within 8 weeks, or if you decide not to get vaccinated, work from home for the next 6 months. You can choose to do) yet).
Also explain that it is unacceptable (for example, appearing in the office only for the client’s meeting if the client is not vaccinated, or complaining about the policy of all supervisory calls). By communicating your expectations honestly, frankly and consistently, and giving people the opportunity to “oppose and commit”, you are more helpful than giving people false hopes.
3) If you need to make a decision immediately, or if a crisis occurs. There was a security breach in the building. Everyone needs to leave the office immediately and gather in the next parking lot for the next set of instructions. Providing an open door policy for questions can slow down urgent missions if you want to act on people now and ask questions later.
Alternative Ways: Make sure all verbal (message), voice (voice tone), and visual (body language) cues match to reflect the severity or immediacy of the situation. .. If they don’t match, people are more likely to support visual clues and ignore what you’re saying.
Clearly and repeatedly tell what, when, and why you need to do it. You may also need to tell them that you can’t answer the question right now (or don’t know more than what you shared), but you can discuss and report later.
This is what I personally experienced while evacuating from an office building in Manhattan on 9/11, shortly after seeing a second plane crash into the World Trade Center through my window. Our leader said there was an attack on the Twin Towers. We soon left the building via the stairs, leaving the chaos and heading uptown. She also explained that there is no further information, but she will contact us all that day or late in the evening to share the next step in reopening the office. And in fact, the next day, she made herself available for discussion, reporting, care, and compassion beyond what she had never experienced before.
We all want to be useful leaders and useful leaders. Knowing what kind of help to give is not as easy as keeping our door open. Avoiding micromanagement and underleading requires a variety of useful practices.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant teaching leadership communication between Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is a co-author of GotoHelp: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and AcceptHelp.
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