When your manager says ‘My door is always open’ what does it really mean?

Encouraging employees to speak up is a vital - but difficult - process

If you are in an influential position, you have probably said words to the effect of "My door is always open." You most likely meant this genuinely. You might feel that you are a pretty approachable sort of person and that others feel comfortable coming to you with their issues and their ideas.

This may be true.

But it probably isn’t.

Leaders often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to speak honestly to them. We simply don’t appreciate how risky it can feel for them. As a member of a privileged in-group, we forget what it is like to be in the less privileged out-group.


Consider the phrase “My door is always open”. It contains several assumptions. First, people should meet you on your territory, rather than the other way around. Second, you have the luxury of a door. Third, you can choose when to close or open it.

These details are small but important. Organisational systems contain many subtle codes that encourage employees to conform. Perhaps the most obvious, one that breeds considerable cynicism, is when a powerful person tells people to challenge him – and then punishes those who do.

We know all the dangers of silence. Most leaders know they need to be more accessible, more conversational. And so executives say again and again, “My door is always open.” Then they wonder (occasionally with some relief) why people aren’t coming through it very often.

So how do leaders acknowledge power differences and genuinely encourage others to speak up? Our research suggests that they need to ask questions in five areas:

– Are you honestly interested in other people’s opinions? If you are, whose opinions are you most interested in hearing, and whose are you biased against? What data do you listen to most, and to what are you largely deaf?

– Have you considered how risky it feels for others to speak up to you? You can investigate this more deeply by reflecting on how you tend to respond when challenged by people.

– How aware are you of the political game being played? Enabling others to speak up means understanding why this person might be saying what they are saying (or why they are staying silent) and making an informed choice about whether to surface that agenda.

– What labels do people apply to you, and what labels do you apply to others that define the rules of what can be said?

– Finally, what specifically do you need to do and say to enable others to speak?

If you are wondering why others aren't speaking up more, first ask yourself how you are inadvertently silencing them. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Megan Reitz is an associate professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. John Higgins is an independent researcher, coach and consultant. He is the author of The Change Doctors: Re-imaging Organizational Practice.