Cy Wakeman was a brand new manager. It was her first time managing a team. She was excited to attend her organization’s “boot camp for new managers” and learn everything she needed to know to be successful.
“A great leader always has an open door,” the trainer told the class.
“An open door? That was easy,” thought Cy. “Not only was I going to have an open door policy, I was going to ace it!” She went down to the gift shop of the health center where she worked and purchased a doorstop to send a clear message her door was always open.
“Soon team members began popping their heads in my open door. ‘Do you have a minute?’ they asked.”
“Sure, I have two!” Cy replied.
It soon became clear, however, her team members weren’t asking for advice on critical business decisions or how to serve clients better or how to develop or hone skills.
“People came in to tattle on others. They wanted to tell me stories about things that had happened only in their heads,” Cy recalls. “Or they’d vent about circumstances that couldn’t be changed (what I call reality). They’d use our time to spin fantasies about a dismal or doomed future. Frequently, it was a combination of these things.”
At the end of the meeting, they would say, “Please don’t do anything about this. I just wanted you to be aware.”
Is it time to re-think the open-door policy?
The conventional wisdom says having an “open door policy” is key to becoming a good manager.
Or, is it?
“The open door was a portal for drama,” fueling feelings of victimhood, catering to ego, and contributing to low morale, writes Cy.
So, what’s wrong with letting off a little steam? Isn’t venting a good thing?
Not so fast, Cy suggests.
Just venting doesn’t resolve anything. “It leads to more venting which ramps up negativity, not problem solving,” Cy observes.
Venting by itself allows our ego to take charge. Our egos love “a good ride in the BMW,” what Cy refers to as bitching, moaning, and whining.
Ego sees insult where none is intended. Ego lets us off the hook and justifies our lack of action. Worst of all, ego filters out life’s valuable lessons.
So, as leaders, should we “shut the door” on the open door policy?
No. Instead, we need to change the content and tenor of the conversations which follow.
As leaders, we have a higher calling. We can help team members stop arguing with reality and instead, confront it. We can help people stop judging others and instead, offer to help. We can encourage colleagues to stop seeing themselves as victims of cruel circumstances and instead recognize that circumstances are the reality within which we must succeed.
By asking questions. Asking questions leads to reflection. Reflection increases self-awareness.
We can ask: “What do you know for sure?” Or, “What’s your part in this?” Or, “What are your ideas for resolving the issue?”
When someone comes in to tattle, we can encourage them to go directly to the person and ask: “How can I help?” The benefit of which is instant teamwork!
Cy’s favorite question?
“What would great look like right now?”
Reflection: Is my experience with the open-door policy similar to Cy’s? Why or why not?
Action: The next time someone comes into my office to vent, re-frame the conversation by asking questions.