Even an open door policy needs some ground rules

Dear Joan:                     
We have an extremely busy office, which has experienced tremendous growth this past year. There are three of us supervising about 30 professional people. These are wonderful, fun-loving individuals who seem to enjoy our casual work environment.

We are beginning to think we are too casual, as our staff constantly interrupts us, thinking nothing of walking into our offices and interrupting a conversation to ask questions or give a running commentary on some project in which they are involved. They seem to want answers immediately so they can complete something, rather than gather up several questions to approach us at one time.  

In the past, we have suggested to them that they give us a note and we will seek them out when we are finished with our task. This lasted about one week. Perhaps the question is, how available should supervisors be?  

It feels like they have no respect for our time and want us to be "on-call" when and if they need us. Most of what they ask for or need could be addressed at a later time. As a result of the constant interruptions, we end up working weekends or staying late just to keep up. Are we not being clear enough?  

Your actions speak so clearly, your employees aren’t hearing a word you say. If you say one thing but reward another you are sabotaging your message. In an effort to be supportive and respectful to your employees, you have created a disrespectful situation for yourselves.

Although I hate to draw an analogy between employees and children, I think this example will say it all: Often parents will give in to their child’s whining because they just want the child to be quiet. Of course, once this behavior is rewarded, the child now whines on a continual basis to get what he or she wants. That habit will not be broken if the parent simply tells the child to stop whining. As with your situation, you will need to back it up with behaviors that are congruent with what you say.  

It’s easy to see how you could have gotten yourselves into this situation. You undoubtedly want to keep your delightful group of employees happy and motivated. And it’s great to see supervisors who want to be so accessible, especially during times of rapid growth, when fast decisions need to be made minute to minute.  

Communication and consistency breaks down when there are no systems in place during rapid growth. Then, when you get just a little bit bigger, say 50 employees, problems start erupting and satisfaction begins to take a nosedive, unless a little more structure is in place. Obviously you don’t want to create unnecessary bureaucracy, but a few ground rules and systems are needed now.  

As you make these changes, take care not to position it as a reaction to the employee’s interruptions. You certainly want them to continue to come to you with issues and updates. Instead, explain the changes as a few “structural steps” you feel will be helpful to everyone as the company grows.  

Here are some ideas:
  • Commit to holding regular weekly meetings, no matter how busy you are. These meetings can be short (no more than one hour). Invite people to electronically submit their issues/topics, or just post a sheet of paper that people can use to add their agenda items.  Explain that these meetings are necessary so that everyone can keep in touch with each other, and that you expect them to share information during the meeting, rather than just having one-on-one conversations with supervisors. Start directing people to submit their updates and issues on the agenda.
  • Have regular one-on-ones with each key employee. Make it clear that these sessions are for them to update you on their work, and for you to provide guidance and answer questions. They can be encouraged to save non-essential questions for their one-on-one. Start with once a week for 20 minutes—you may be able to go to twice a month over time.
  • Hold daily huddles at the beginning of the day or shift. Keep these even shorter (15 minutes). Gather in one area at the same time each day for a stand up meeting. This can be used to plan the day and follow up on burning issues. Let everyone know that this is the time for quick questions and information sharing.
  • It’s important that you meet often enough with your fellow supervisors so that you are all sending out the same message on key issues and policies. If you are inconsistent, or if one supervisor shares more than the others, you will start rumors and create communication gaps that will require more time and energy to resolve later.
  • Create a signal that means "No interruptions." This can be as simple as a closed door. Tell them you must do this to get some of your work done and encourage them to find their own signal so they can have quiet time, too. Then DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO BREAK THE RULE. Simply say, "My door was closed. Remember that means I need quiet time to get some work done." Period.  

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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