No manager in my memory has ever claimed he or she had a “Non-Open Door Policy”. Claiming to have an open door policy is so automatic for most managers, announcing it rolls off their tongue soon after assuming almost any management position.
Of course we are not literally talking about a door in most instances. The concept is a figurative reference to one’s APPROACHABILITY. An open door policy communicates an intention to engage with others. It says “I welcome seeing and hearing from others” and is often accompanied by language indicating that the input will be welcome good or bad, praiseworthy or critical. An open door policy is in every way a positive message from a manager.
But actually, we as managers do not get to determine whether we really have an open door to others, they do. Specifically, our subordinates, colleagues and superiors determine that. So managers think about this on two levels.
First, an open door policy implies an OPEN MIND.
An open mind means a willingness to listen carefully and respectfully to others and to weigh carefully what they have to say. An open mind requires us to incorporate new, useful ideas and information into our own thinking, to update our mental models based on new input and to admit when we are wrong or that somebody else has a better idea than our own.
An open mind can not be faked. Others see through and recognize closed-mindedness in others rather easily and all the open door policy pronouncements in the world will not make others anxious to engage a closed mind.
Second, the approachability suggested by an announced open door policy is often contradicted by a manager’s often UNCONSCIOUS BODY LANGUAGE AND MANNER OF SPEAkING that sends quite the opposite impression to others. This is a rather broad subject and I could go on at length with examples of what I am referring to here. The important thing is for us to practice some self-awareness regarding how we interact with others and to exercise the discipline needed to make any changes in our behavior that may signal, however subtle or unintended, a “please go away” message to those requesting a spot of our time. To help get this self-assessment started, consider the following.
When others approach your office, cubicle, or work space, is your back the first thing they see? Our back is not nearly as inviting as our front or side. So when you have some flexibility in arranging your work space, consider facing the approach others will have to you.
How comfortable are you with looking others directly in the eyes when they are speaking to you? Wandering or averting eyes tend to suggest a lack of full attention to what others are saying whether that is the truth or not. Unless you are simply way too uncomfortable with direct eye contact, try to maintain it at least some of the time.
Computer screens are real attention grabbers when others are talking to us. So also are all those devices that connect us to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. They flicker, move and beep and almost compulsively draw our attention. Often we are in the midst of an electronic interaction when approached at work. Multi-tasking and trying to pay close attention to what someone else is saying rarely mix well. When somebody else wants your full attention, give it to them and consciously ignore those devices at hand.
Abrupt, off-putting responses or closed body language that radiates impatience do not signal a true open door to your mind. The kinesthetic signals sent by some managers in my memory often conjured up a sense of coldness that was almost palpable. They claimed to have an open door policy as well. I doubted that.
Finally, how do you handle situations where you are simply too busy for some important and valid reason to stop and listen to someone who says “can I tell you something” or “do you have time to look at this”? Bear in mind that people who ask you these questions believe that what they want to tell or show you is just as important to them as what you are currently about is to you.
Most of us who have managed have mismanaged these situations more often than we wish to admit. But if you wish to remain approachable in the eyes of others it is important to develop a response in these situations that combines honesty —I can not give you my full attention at this time for this reason — and a commitment — to re-engage soon at a time convenient to both of you. Only the unreasonable will read this as an indication that you simply don’t care.
If you really wonder if others believe you are truly approachable, step back and consider how you think, look and behave when approached. Or just ask a few people with the courage to tell you the truth. But do neither of these things if you are unwilling to respond positively to what you learn.