Back in 2015, a close friend of mine joined a startup on the East Coast. As a Colorado corporate vet, this was wholly new to him. Much of it was exciting, to be sure: the quick rollout of new products, a remote work policy that afforded employees immense flexibility, even quirky party-gift-style kudos that showed up occasionally in the mail.
The management style seemed to be a revelation, too. The traditional hierarchy was flattened, leaving only three layers of management in the entire company. Even better was the proudly proclaimed "open door" culture that gave everyone at the company--no matter their seniority--an opportunity to chat with a manager about anything. You could even pull up a chair in the CEO's office on a whim, my friend told me.
It sounded ideal. A collaborative environment where people focus less on a chain of command and more on getting things done? A culture that is open to everyone's ideas and equality is paramount? Yes, please.
Over time, however, my friend saw holes in this forward-thinking philosophy. New employees--only a few days on the job--would make it a point to chat with the CEO daily, sometimes for as much as an hour at a time. Complaints and back-talk escalated from simmer to boil with no clear path for resolution. And good ideas, heaped on overworked project managers, ended up lost, forgotten, or dismissed.
The egalitarian thrust of modern startups is undoubtedly attractive, but resulting open door policies reveal an Achilles' heel: communication quickly becomes muddled, misdirected, and confusing.
Using my friend's cautionary tale as an example, I see five reasons why an open door policy is actually a bad idea for startups:
1. It over-leverages managers' time.
In the best-case scenario, an open door policy allows for ongoing communication about pertinent issues. In most cases, however, it requires a manager to listen to requests, comments, or questions that they often cannot directly address or resolve. Their time--meant to be spent on their own work--is commandeered by employees who need an ear.
2. Ideas, comments, and questions are funneled to the wrong people.
In my friend's case, everyone wanted to chat with the CEO. Who better to butter up for that upcoming promotion--or pin down for critical changes that would improve workflow? However, the CEO didn't always have the resources or knowledge to adequately address the needs of every employee who walked through his door.
Many concerns were better directed at HR, while several others were very clearly the purview of other managers. The CEO listened, but in many cases, the issues went unaddressed, as he didn't have the time, resources, or knowledge to see them through.
3. Employees are not motivated to resolve their own issues.
Some problems require the assistance of managers to solve. Many, however, can be easily solved by employees. When an open door policy is enacted, however, many of the rank-and-file go straight to a higher-up for help. In doing so, they never learn how to solve their own issues.
Close the door--at least for a while--and you force employees to resolve their own issues. This improves problem-solving skills, making employees more valuable to the company over the long haul.
4. Decision making responsibilities become muddled.
While legitimate questions from a direct report are due a timely and reasonable response, constant, time-sucking prodding about minute work issues can result in a "pass the buck" culture where decision making is quickly shuffled to the next person.
An employee tosses a decision to a manager with an open door, then the overworked or under-informed manager passes it to another colleague, and so on until the decision is either made by the wrong person--simply to move things along--or is dropped altogether, potentially hindering productivity.
5. Conversations quickly become venting or complaining sessions.
My friend saw this happen ad nauseam--employees wandering into a manager's office to unload about a fellow employee. There was seldom any structure to the complaint, nor did they very often talk to the right manager. This resulted in sensitive information being communicated to the wrong person, and, in some cases, that information leaking out into the company. Even worse, the issues were seldom addressed or resolved; the frustration was merely amplified by the vent session.
Needless to say, my friend ended up leaving that glitzy East Coast startup after less than a year. It wasn't entirely because of the open door policy confusion, but it fanned the flames. These days, he's more in tune with companies that are less philosophically egalitarian and more intentional about their communication policies.
To that end, I asked him, "What's the perfect alternative to an open door policy?" His answer was straightforward enough: Communication should have a clear purpose, a prescribed medium, and, as needed, a path to resolution.
In other words, policies should be in place to let employees know when to communicate with managers about concerns or questions, to whom they should bring those concerns, and how they can expect to see them addressed or resolved.
Otherwise, he cautioned, you end up with an open door policy free-for-all.