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Why millennials hate your open door policy

open door

It’s Tuesday, and your team is quietly working away.  Chris was stuck on a bug.  Selena was feeling discouraged about learning Clojure.  Zach was bored writing another report. Dan was confused about a requirement.  Matt was juggling customer calls with coding.  Carrie was trying to figure out what to work on next. Jason was worried that his boss might fire him.  Maggie was frustrated with a co-worker in another group.  You have an “open door policy” so your office door is wide open and you are happily coding a new feature, all alone.

When I was a Team Lead, I had an open door policy.  I’d say “The door is always open, come see me anytime.”  Doesn’t it sound supportive, friendly and accommodating?  It looks like the opposite of what a clueless boss would do.  How can an open door policy be wrong?

Your open door policy is easy for you, but may be hard for your team members.  Let’s consider both perspectives:

1. People come to you when they have a problem.
2. You don’t have to scan the horizon looking for issues; they just walk in the door.
3. No need to sound like Bill Lumbergh in Office Space (“So Peter… what’s happening.”)
4. You can focus on getting real work done and only deal with them when problems arise.
5. It’s an easy way to juggle managing your team with your coding responsibilities.

Your team
1. Thinks of walking in your office as “bothering you.”
2. Wonders what kind of problems they should bring to your attention.
3. Is worried about bothering you with “small” problems that have “obvious” solutions.
4. Is motivated to show you they independently to solve problems.
5. Knows you are very busy, and your time is precious.
6. Has to rely on their best judgment of when to bother you, and when to remain in their current state.

The result?
1. You hear about problems later, rather than earlier.  You will spend more time cleaning up than guiding.
2. Your team spends more time being stuck, working on the wrong thing, or interpreting requirements incorrectly.
3. Your team has less context about their work, so they make lower quality decisions.
4. Your team may feel you’d rather be coding than managing, which makes them feel like a burden.

Now, I told you that millennials hate your open door policy.  More than past generations Millennials thrive on feedback, flexibility, purpose and progressing to the next level.  They expect managers to provide these things for them in a structured way, trusting that their manager has a plan for their success.  Other generations may have wanted these things, but studies show Millennials put a high priority on this stuff.

Should you abandon your open door policy?
Open door policies have a place in the mix of your communication channels, but should not be the primary channel.  One-on-one meetings, daily stand-up, and team meetings should be the primary communication channels. Your open door policy should is appropriate when there’s an immediate issue that needs your attention.

Also, you need to teach your team how and when to use your open-door policy.  For example, you might ask your team to bring vacation requests to your 1:1 meetings, but short-notice schedule changes warrant using the open-door policy.  I used to inform my developers that I wanted them to spend no more than 2 hours stuck on a problem before letting me know, so using the open door policy was appropriate for a 5-minute chat might solve the problem.  Another rule I had was that if someone was unclear on the priorities, we had set in the 1:1 meeting, using the open-door was the right decision.

Your open door policy serves a purpose, but you need to let your team know when, how and why to use your open door.  This reduces their mental roadblocks to them walking through the door, gives them confidence that the policy is there to serve them, and builds the trust relationship that you both want.

After reading this, how well is your open-door policy working for you?

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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