Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why “My Door is Always Open” Isn’t Good Enough

It’s sort of a one question IQ test – if your employee has a concern, particularly a safety concern, do you want to know about their concern? Of course you do. In fact, if we pressed you further you would likely say that it’s very important to get that information from your employee. You would probably admit that information from your employees about what’s really happening on the ground floor is vital. In fact it’s pretty rare to find a manager or supervisor (or, much less, a safety manager) that says that information from employees is not very valuable.

But here’s the thing, when we ask most managers and supervisors (and yes, including safety managers) what they are doing to get this valuable information from employees we get a pretty consistent response – “the employees know that my door is always open.”

On the surface this seems like a good idea. After all, you’re a pretty approachable person, right? And it can’t really be that hard for someone to just walk into your office, sit down, and bring up a concern, can it?

Here’s the thing though – in nearly every case where the only way that employees can bring up safety concerns is through an “open door” policy, when we talk to the line employees there’s a perception that management doesn’t know what’s really happening in the organization and that management doesn’t really care.

How can this be? After all, we’re pretty sure that most of the managers and supervisors we’ve talked to who said that their “door is always open” meant it. They really, genuinely wanted to know what employee concerns were. Why weren’t employees taking advantage of the open door policy?

The only natural conclusion is that it must be something wrong with the employees, right? …right?

Maybe it’s not that simple. To understand the problem a little better lets simplify it a little bit. So a manager wants to get something out of employees, in this case it’s information, but let’s keep it general for now and just say that the manager wants anything out of an employee. The manager has two options to get the employee to do what they want – the passive approach and the active approach. In the passive approach, the manager waits for the employees to give the manager what he/she wants. In the active approach, the manager goes out and gets what they want.

Just on its face, it should be pretty clear that (a) open door policies are closer to the passive approach, and (b) the passive approach will be less effective in the long run. But let’s examine this more closely.

Let’s consider the fact that there are some things that the manager takes an active approach on. For example, there are plenty of production issues where the manager doesn’t wait for employees, they go out and get what they want. So what really determines what the manager takes the passive and active approaches on? Usually it’s a matter of priorities. Those things that the manager just can’t leave to chance require an active approach because they are too important. Of course, the manager has a finite amount of time, and therefore they can’t take the active approach on everything, so those things that are important, but not the highest priority get the passive approach.

If this is true, that means that the typical approach most organizations take toward employee feedback and concerns shows that employee feedback and concerns are not a high priority. The cause of this belief could be because of one or both of the following:
  1. The manager may not feel that learning is a high priority for an organization.
  2. The manager does not feel that employee feedback and concerns are a good source of learning in the organization.

In the safety space, both of these ideas are caustic and hopefully we don’t have to explain why (we can if you’d like though). But we have to come to grips with the fact that no matter what we think, when we take passive approaches to employee interaction we send a message that the information that employees have is not very important to us. And then we wonder why there’s a trust deficit in our organizations.

Now, open door policies are fine, but they won’t really work unless they are coupled with active approaches. If organizational learning through identifying what’s really happening on the ground floor is really valuable to your company (it should be) then you need to get out from behind your desk and start talking to people. You may not like what you hear, but that’s sort of the point – if you don’t like what you hear that means that there are things happening in your organization that you also would not like. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. If you are a manager, supervisor, or safety professional you aren’t paid to dig your head into the sand. Your job is to make the organization work, which involves finding and fixing problems. You can’t do that from behind a desk. You won’t get this information from a spreadsheet.

And you know what? Your employees know all of this. They know that you don’t know everything that’s really happening in your organization. But when you don’t ever engage them and ask them it says to them that you don’t really care. They start to think that other things are more important to you than their perspective. They expect you to be a leader and leaders lead by action, and when you take an active approach to things like production and take a passive approach to their concerns, can we fault them for thinking that you don’t really care? So why would they go out of their way, put their neck on the line, to tell you about the issues? They will just go on making the best of a tough situation, like they always have and you will be none the wiser…that is, until the accident happens.

The bottom line is that if you really care about what your employees think and you really want to hear their feedback and concerns, prove it.


  1. Great topic and insight! You mentioned that whether the manager takes the passive or active approaches is usually a matter of priorities. I would agree except I would change priorities to values. Priorities change, values are long lasting and those values usually reflect the organization's overall values and culture. What get's measured matters. And what matter most is obvious to employees even if managers don't realize it.

  2. I agree overall Ron (how could I not with such a great name!). I would just say that the point here is that people's values are not in line with their behavior. So, in this case, people claim to value organizational learning, but they aren't doing what is necessary to achieve that. I think priorities can trump values sometimes if we don't make those values explicit and create a system that makes exercising those values convenient.


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