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Avoiding the pitfalls of an open-door policy.

Few management concepts sound more attractive than an open-door policy (ODP). The term usually describes a freewheeling style of upward communication, often less a formal policy than an informal practice. A manager might sum up ODP this way: "If something is bothering up, and you don't feel free to take it up with your immediate supervisor, just drop in and let's talk it over."

An open-door policy can be a valuable asset, but only if it is carefully controlled and tactfully executed. As a problem-solving method, it's faster, less traumatic, and less intimidating than a formal grievance procedure. An organization with an effective ODP doesn't need a trouble-shooting ombudsman, for managers hear about problems before they get out of hand. And creativity flourishes when top leaders rescue new ideas from a lack of enthusiasm at lower levels.

Open-door management, however, can create serious problems as well as uncover them. In some organizations, ODP is a polite fiction. Few managers would boast of having a closed-door policy. But when employees get a cool reception, it soon becomes common knowledge that the "open door" to a high-level office is actually a trap door.

On the other hand, managers who do make themselves highly available to employees encounter a number of hurdles. If staff members can't be sure of anonymity, they may hesitate to attempt end runs around their supervisors. Ironically, victims of hard-nosed, autocratic supervisors are the most likely to need recourse to upper management--and the most vulnerable to retaliation for going over their boss's head. They must gamble a lot for the slim chance of achieving their purpose.

Open-door managers themselves face the major difficulty of limiting visits to those with merit. It's something like issuing an open invitation to drop in at your summer retreat. Well-meaning managers may have to pull in the welcome mat if they are inundated with picayune complaints and trivial suggestions.

Finally, ODP can spark serious concerns among bypassed supervisors. The very fact that an employee has bypassed them reflects on their managerial skill. Even the most democratic and enlightened supervisor feels uneasy upon seeing an employee in the laboratory manager's office, particularly after a recent conflict with the staff member in question.

The open door can also serve to shut out the man or woman in the middle. ODP may prevent supervisors from getting needed information if much of the discussion in the manager's office doesn't get back to them. Supervisors are not always offered the chance to present their side of the story or to face their accusers before a verdict is rendered or action taken. Frequent bypassing will undermine their authority, handicap their problem-solving ability, and leave their work plans open to ill-advised interference from above.

All told, much more goes into a successful open-door policy than declaring it to exist. It is difficult to formulate a foolproof strategy to prevent the overuse or abuse of this informal management style. What follows are some commonsense rules, to be used in conjunction with large doses of good judgment.

* Know when not to get involved. It's seldom wise to hear out a complaint before the employee has discussed it directly with his or her supervisor. This situation may be hard to avoid. One technologist, David, presents the blood bank director with a legitimate question about a donor, but then launches into a series of complaints about his section's scheduling practices. Ellen is more direct. She bursts into the director's office protesting intensely that she's always being pressured to work overtime.

In the first case, the director must be firm in refusing to let David link a personal gripe to an urgent work question. Arrange to discuss individual problems at a later time, but don't let them multiply uncontrollably. If the problem can be handled without your intervention, all the better. When Ellen was asked if she had discussed the overtime question with her supervisor, she said yes. Subsequent investigation revealed that she had never even mentioned it. So the dilemma was delegated--and resolved.

* Know when to set up, or avoid, a confrontation. Encourage communication, but keep employee/supervisor face-offs to a minimum. The staff will shun your open door if their supervisors are routinely called in for a showdown. both parties are usually upset and resentful when a complaint arises--the employee at the alleged injustice, and the supervisor at being bypassed and interrupted. Such emotionally charged situations can be explosive.

On occasion, though, a confrontation is needed to get facts into the open and clear the air. An employee may distort, exaggerate, or even fabricate to get revenge or just for attention. Unjustified complaints crop up less often when the staff knows that supervisors will get equal air time, in their presence.

A well-managed confrontation can also keep a supervisor from spreading misinformation or misunderstandings. For example, Larry, a financially hard-pressed phlebotomist, rushes into the laboratory manager's office to report what he just heard from Joan, his supervisor: Some phlebotomists are about to be furloughed, others cut back to part-time status. The manager sends for Joan and discovers that Larry overheard a conversation she had about cost-cutting measures in other labs. Had the manager merely told Larry the rumor was false, hi might or might not have felt reassured.

* Know when to keep the monkey off your back. To winnow out unrealistic suggestions or minor complaints, get employees involved by asking for references or data to support their claims. Just be careful not to authorize a time-consuming wild goose chase. Ask how they would address the problem, and discuss the pros and cons of alternative solutions.

* Recognize and react to valid points. If your open-door policy is to be a valuable tool for improving lab communication, you must solicit employee input honestly and consistently. When in doubt as to the merit of a suggestion or complaint, err on the positive side. Encourage creativity, and don't expect every suggestion to be a winner. When we're too pragmatic, we tend to reward conformity over innovation.

Investigate bona fide complaints without delay. If the complaint is one you should have been aware of long ago, then it's time for a closer look at the laboratory's problem-detection system.

Whether you pursue the traditional, informal ODP or develop your own version, the key determinant of effectiveness is upward communication. That includes the active solicitation of opinions, suggestions, and problems. Rhetoric alone won't convince the staff that your door remains open for more than ventilation. Attitudes and actions prove that you mean it.

A manager's personal availability is only one strategy to keep communication flowing up from the ranks. Others include quality circles, problem-solving meetings, documented grievance procedures, hot lines, suggestion boxes, questionnaires, counseling sessions, performance reviews, and exit interviews.

Of course, none of these will prove effective if managers don't tune in to the messages they receive. You must listen and respond. The best listening posts are at the work benches, as Japanese industrialists discovered when they eliminated most managers' private offices.

It isn't hard to be hospitable and empathetic during a lull in the work day. Upward communication in a clinical lab, however, is sometimes a round-the-clock challenge. Ask yourself, How do I react to suggestions or complaints when overwhelmed with work or when telephoned by a distraught employee in the middle of dinner? What's my batting average for resolving complaints or implementing staff suggestions? Do employees know I made an effort, even when it's unsuccessful? Do I express appreciation for their input?

An open-door policy calls for a big commitment in time, effort, and interpersonal skill. If you claim to have one, make sure it's paying off or consider changing it. Your office door, after all, is only one of many channels for better laboratory communications.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:manager accessibility
Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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