What Makes an Open Door Policy Work?

Why do senior executives tell me they’re lying awake at night wondering why people aren’t walking in their “open door”? Obviously, they’re not interpreting this as good news. They’re responding to an intuition that they’re missing something critical or a sense that their relationships “should” be better. These senior executives tell me they would love it if people would challenge them. They tell me they know the value of this kind of conversation. But no one is darkening their door. And they’re stymied as to why. What’s missing to transform their open door policy into a practice that will accomplish their noble intention?

Reflection. Commitment to action. Audacity.

Without these, an open door policy is just an expectation.


When executives come to me troubled about this particular unfulfilled expectation, I invite them to start with careful consideration of what’s behind the need for an “open door policy.” So we consider:

  • Why do you have an “open door” policy?
  • What’s so attractive about it to you?
  • If it’s because you care what others think, then why do you care? What other areas of your leadership reflect that you care about the input of others?
  • How many people are coming through your door?
  • Given the importance of this policy to you, what have you done about the low traffic?
  • Where have you gone out of your way to fight for the intention of your open door policy?

This inquiry helps us get clear about whether the policy is based in a thoughtful and deliberate expression of their values. From there, we look at their commitment to action.


Think of an open door policy like an intention (aka resolution) you might choose to set at the beginning of the new year. Each intention is a monologue we have with ourselves that leads us to expect that we’ll actually do what we say we’ll do. Each seems like a good idea at the time. However, if we don’t make a genuine commitment to action, our well-intended expectation just becomes another mindless platitude we beat ourselves up for not realizing.

Consider an open door policy as an announcement—a more public form of a “monologue of expectation”—that we’ll be having impromptu dialogues in the future. Unfortunately, announcements, in and of themselves, never realize our intentions. Announcements require follow-up actions that take the onus off of everyone else. An open door policy puts the onus on everyone else to come in your open door.

Relationships don’t work this way. A dialogue takes two. It only happens in a one-on-one relationship. Both parties to the relationship need to make a genuine commitment to action, in this case, initiating dialogue.

Traditional hierarchies operate as command-and-control centers. When we’re in the command center, we’re speaking from behind the blind spot of our open door policy. We cannot see that announcing an open door policy from our “dominant position” sounds like just another workaround to coerce people into speaking their ideas. Even the idea of “opening the door” actually reinforces that there is a wall between us that’s been constructed by hierarchy. And it may reinforce a message that we are not as open to others as our roles and operational relationships require us to be.

This opens us up to have people doubt our good intentions.

As leaders, we judge and are being judged based on performance—not intentions. It is your responsibility as a leader to gather feedback from all quarters. The intention of an open door policy needs to be followed up with committed action. We need to be responsible to actively tell people that we want and need feedback in both directions–positive and negative. They need to know it is an absolute necessity for all of us–whether you have declared a policy or not.

As a matter of fact, kill the policy and just start having the conversations.

Trust your intention. Act on it.
Initiate one-on-one conversations.


It’s our responsibility as leaders to convene the conversations that would not otherwise take place in which the future changes positively for both parties. We can initiate one-on-one conversations in which we design and define our relationships. Here we can be much more specific in articulating what we expect of each other and what actions we are willing to commit to in terms of organic, unstructured dialogue in the future.

Construct your relationships in such a way that you realize the intention of an open door policy—without the policy.

Entering these conversations takes courage. This is unknown territory, a land without the boundaries of hierarchy or reporting structure. The strength of the relationship is what allows us to be in a conversation where we reveal our incompetence or lack of knowledge relative to what is emerging in our work. Individually and collectively, we have to be comfortable with the discomfort of acknowledging there is something we do not know.

As human beings, we tend to want to resolve everything to a structure. Yet being able to transcend hierarchy allows us to have the spontaneous conversations we need to have as the new and unexpected emerge.