72. Open Door Policies Don't Work
How a 10 year old buffoon teaches a lesson in corporate communication
Once, when I was 10, I walked through a door. It was closed at the time.
It was at the Kavanaugh’s house, just up the block from where my family lived. The Kavanaugh’s, who you probably don’t know, were having a backyard BBQ for adults because the Kavanaughs never had kids and, as far as I could tell, the Kavanaughs didn’t like kids. I was a kid. Henceforth, ergo, thusly, I shouldn’t have been there. But, alas, my parents were cool. Still are. They let me join them for the party.
So there I was, a 4th grader at a party with little to no other kids present. My mother and father were socializing in the backyard and I was desperately trying to act grown up, ‘cause that’s what 10 year olds do when surrounded by grown-ups. I went inside to get some food - a large dollop of potato salad, assorted barbecued meats and the such. Once my plate was fully loaded with more than I could possibly eat, I balanced it on one hand and grabbed a cup of soda in the other.
I walked through the living room to the backyard to be with my parents.
My eyes were down, making sure I didn’t spill that potato salad, BBQ and soda all over the Kavanaugh’s rug. Ruining the rug is exactly what one would expect a kid to do in a party full of grown ups. And that’s when I walked through the door. It was a screen door. It was closed. I didn’t notice.
It made a loud CRASH! Loud enough for everybody at the party to immediately stop talking and look over. What they witnessed was a screen door - with a hole the shape of my face - blasting off its screen door rails, a plate of potato salad and assorted BBQ meats flying through the air onto a nice clean rug, a cup of soda spewing inside and outside the home and a 10 year old boy rebounding off the screen door and falling onto the potato salad and soda drenched floor.
It happened in slow motion, like a bad outtake from The Matrix.
With that image in your mind, I want to tell you a little bit about China in the 19th century.
Most Favored Nation
China has been a major economic powerhouse since the time of Jesus, give or take a hundred years. The country is just a wee bit bigger in land mass than the United States and, with its vast amount of exportable resources and extensive coast line, China has been an optimal trading hub pretty much since trading began.
In 1895, after the first Sino-Japanese war, there was a mad dash scramble to control different coastal ports in China. Countries like Russia, France, Spain and Great Britain were calling dibs for as much coastline of China as they could get before anybody else took it. Think musical chairs, but at a global economic level.
Fearing the creation of monopolies and the economic fragmentation of China, the US Secretary of State, John Milton Hay (Jay Hay, to his friends... including me), in 1899 created a favored nation’s policy that was adopted by Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia.
The basic gist of the policy was that all countries would be treated equally in their trade with China. They’d all have access to the same ports, be taxed the same and, in every other way, treated as equals in their China trade activities.
That policy remained in effect until 1945 when, for understandable reasons, things became a little hot under the collar what with Germany and Japan and Russia and pretty much everybody having spent a bunch of years trying to kill each other.
I tell you all of this, not to give you a history lesson on 19th century economic trade policy with China, but rather to let you know the name of the policy created by Secretary Hay.
It was called the Open Door Policy.
And that’s where the idea of an “open door policy” began - seemingly far different than how it’s used today, but in reality quite the same.
The Meaning of The Open Door
An Open Door Policy in trade is quite similar in meaning to one in business (wait, did I say that already?)
The basic idea is that all people have equal and open access to a primary resource. In world trade, it is about keeping ports open. In a workplace setting, this is done by keeping an office door open. Same same.
I am neither an economist nor a historian, so now that we know the etymology of the term, I’m going to do us both a favor and stop talking about economic interests in China and focus on the business usage of the term.
There is a benefit of an open door policy in a company - it provides open access for all employees to give feedback on the company. The primary goal of this open access concept is to create a more transparent, trusting culture.
There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.
The Pareto Principle
You’re probably familiar with the Pareto Principle but you most likely don’t know it by that term. The more common name of the principle is the 80/20 Rule.
The general concept of this rule (which has its roots in quality control, for reasons I don’t quite care about), is that 80 percent of consequences are a result of only 20 percent of causes. In business, it tends to mean that 20% of your clients account for 80% of your revenue. In terms of your job, 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your efforts.
As it turns out, the Pareto Principle can be applied to the Open Door Policy as well.
A 2019 study of 6,000 employees found that, when asked, only 14% of those surveyed would speak up to their managers on almost all topics. The vast majority of employees would not speak up to managers at all, especially when directly asked.
Applying this to the Open Door, and you can expect only ~14% of employees to feel comfortable proactively walking in and having a tough conversation with the leader. If you have 50 people in your company, that means you’re only going to get proactive input from 7 of them.
There are a few problems with that:
As a manager, you are prone to think that if 7 people walked in and gave you feedback, that it means everybody would walk in if they had something to say.
43 other employees probably have something they could say but they aren’t going to walk through your door.
As a manager, you are prone to think those 7 people represent the entire company.
You at least need a diverse majority to more accurately represent the company.
Think of it this way, if we only allowed the loudest 14% of the country to vote on our laws, we’d probably have a much different country. Instead of 155M votes in the 2020 presidential election there would only be 29M, which is significantly less than even California’s population.
When The Legs Don’t Move
Leaders often say that they have an open door policy and then they feel great about it. The implication is that it’s no longer their fault if there are problems. They can let go of responsibility and always put it on you with an “You should’ve told me, you know I have an open door policy.”
Here’s the reality: it is extremely difficult for employees to walk into a manager’s office in order to have a tough conversation.
Let’s go back to the Kavanaughs and my 10 year old self. I was nervous, I was distracted, I didn’t want to screw up and regret it. I thought that I was walking through an open door. Instead I was blindsided and walked right into a complete disaster.
That embarrassment typifies the challenge employees fear if that open door (literally) is not really that open (figuratively). This includes:
Fear of reprisal
Fear of being fired
Social ostracization from other employees
Self-justification that “nothing will change”
I didn’t see that screen door in the same way that employees don’t always know the impact of their conversation until they walk right into it.
Which brings me to the actual door.
The Door As A Metaphor and More
Regardless of how transparent a leader is, there is only one reason for them to remain in an office and that is to separate themselves from other employees.
Like a cage, the office both keeps others out and keeps you in.
Keep in mind, I believe in having private conversations. Quite a few discussions are better not shared with everybody.
However, a leader who talks about transparency but spends their entire time stuck in a room not talking to others, is a modern-day Sisyphus, pushing for openness only to be continually defeated by their very own efforts.
What leaders can easily forget is that they cannot abdicate responsibility for employee happiness by telling employees that it’s their fault if they don’t speak up.
When a door is open (literally and figuratively) it means people can walk both in and out. There’s a Seinfeld bit about this - if you know, you know.
An open door doesn’t mean sit and wait for people to arrive. It’s not an open door policy if the door only swings one way. For an open door policy to actually work, it must be a constantly revolving door.
Pro-active, transparent communication must happen in both directions. Into the door and out from the door.
Transparency doesn’t happen if it requires employees to ask questions. Employee happiness doesn’t happen if leadership abdicates responsibility.
So here’s my question to you, what are you doing to create transparency, comfort and communication between employees and leadership? Words matter, but actions are just as important. It might be time to break down the doors, open and closed. Nobody wants potato salad and bbq on their carpet.