Why I closed my open door

Venting is hurting, not helping, your productivity

My entry into reality-based leadership started with the open-door policy.

After several years as a family therapist, I got a promotion to lead a team, which got me a seat in manager boot camp lead by human resources. Designed to prepare me for my new role, it was basically a crash course in the current conventional wisdom around leadership.

One particularly juicy, and commonly accepted, leadership gem was that a great leader always has an open door. An open door? That was easy. Not only was I going to have an open-door policy, I was going to excel at it with the fanciest door stop in the company. And like magic, the open-door policy worked! Soon team members began popping their heads into my open door.

“Got a minute?” they asked.

“Sure, come on in.”

It didn’t take long to realize that these people were liars. They’d ask for a minute or two, but then stayed planted in my office — venting — for an average of 45 minutes.

Now, if they need to talk through a critical decision for serving the business or to help them develop or hone skills the time investment would have had a satisfying pay off.

But people weren’t coming to me for that.

People used my open door to tattle on others. They wanted to tell me stories they’d concocted about things that hadn’t even happened. Or they’d vent about circumstances that couldn’t be changed (what I call reality). They’d use our time to spin predictions about people’s motives. I spent the majority of these impromptu “Got a minute?” meetings listening to elaborate narratives that had almost no basis in reality. And they often ended with the same unproductive request: “Please don’t do anything about this. I just wanted you to be aware.”

The economic effect of this open-door policy made no sense to me. Where was the return on the investment? Was this time truly productive? Imagine what my executive team would say if I told them, “I plan to spend my 8-hour shift in a series of 45-minute one-on-one meetings talking about stuff that doesn’t add one ounce of value to the company.” That executive team would never approve of that sort of leadership time or energy. I’d end up at the unemployment office.

The HR wisdom that said an open door was the right thing to do, touted as a best practice, would also lead to happy, engaged employees. We had been instructed that we should allow employees to vent, because venting is “healthy.” (While I agree that venting feels good, so does a daily ice cream binge, and neither are productive lifestyle choices).

During the time I was an open-door policy devotee, I don’t recall team members ever tattling on themselves. They weren’t coming to me and saying, “I’d like to become more effective at serving our customers better. Can you help me develop my skills and work processes so I can meet company goals, add value to the team and better contribute to ROI?”

In fact, they drove their BMWs (bitching, moaning and whining) through the open door and parked with their engines idling, wasting fuel and polluting the atmosphere. Then they demanded that I withhold the kind of direction and help that would help them get where we needed to go.

I realized pretty quickly that the open door was a portal for drama, fueling feelings of victimhood and contributing to low morale — not the happiness or engagement I was promised.

Worse, it was costing the company a lot of money. I knew my time was better invested by helping people reflect, increase their self-awareness, and look at situations from a higher level of consciousness.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s a great story from an HR Director who attended one of our Reality-Based Leadership seminars. They shared a story about an employee who used her open door to vent about how they were always the one who seemed to answer the phone queue and no one else was stepping up to answer with the same urgency. The leader, who previously would have let them vent, used her new reality-based approach. She asked, “What can you do to best help the customer?” She was amazed at the employee’s new response and how you could see the wheels in their brain turning. The employee responded with “I can take the calls and help them.”

The employee kept trying to vent and the leader kept asking questions for self-reflection on what they could do, not what someone else should do, or wasn’t doing. The employee stopped venting and said, “You are right.” It was like watching a balloon of drama deflate and so much precious time and energy was conserved. Most importantly, the energy was placed into better customer service.

This counterintuitive approach to “people need time to vent” gave employees a better mental process that forced them to deconstruct their “stories” and move into action. It shifted their thinking to a focus on what great outcomes look like.

How to change the conversation

Here is a reality-based toolset of great coaching questions that bypass ego and shift reflection and energy into more productive outcomes. I didn’t shut the door on my team members, exactly, but I began changing the conversation when me they asked for a minute.

Instead of passively listening or directing, I began asking questions:

· “What is your part in this?”

· “What do you know for sure?”

· “What are you doing to help?”

· “What would great look like right now?”

Here’s a question for self-reflection for leaders: What if the role of leader isn’t what we’ve traditionally assumed? What if a leader’s role isn’t to improve morale or motivate employees? What if a leader’s role isn’t to make sure all the employees are engaged and happy? What if these expectations set leaders up for failure?

What if a leader’s job is actually is to coach employees in ways that are grounded in reality? The best way to eliminate waste in the workplace is to improve processes and the best way to eliminate emotional waste from the workplace is to implement great mental processes.

To find more practical tools and how many organizations achieved big results through recapturing time and energy previously spent in drama, check out my new book, No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results.

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