“My door is always open”

Jun 24, 2016 | 1 comment

11 minute read

In my last post in this series (“Managing: An art? Or a science..?”), I’d concluded that good management isn’t really about knowing what to do.

It’s about knowing when to do it.

Good managers, I argued, are those who seem to know when to make a particular decision for themselves, for instance, and when instead to delegate that responsibility. They also seem to know when to more closely monitor an employee’s performance, and when to back off so as not to come across as micromanaging him or her. And they know when…actually, for a more complete list of what good managers know to do when, check out my post: “Throw out that management advice book (part 2): The Ten Commandments.”

But what if, as a manager, you don’t have a feel for this? What if you don’t actually know when to do one thing versus something else?

What then?


Help me if you can

Well, as I also started to explain in that previous post, this question is not nearly as complicated as it might at first seem.

I mean, I certainly know what I do if I don’t know what to do, if you follow me.

I ask someone for help.

That is to say, if I’m in a situation where I don’t know when to do one thing versus another (or anything at all, for that matter), I do what I think most people do: I ask someone to advise me, or perhaps give me some sort of direction.

To be sure, I’ll make an effort to approach someone who I think has sound advice to offer, or possesses the expertise I’m looking for. I’ll also try to ensure that person has a genuine interest in helping me, and providing thoughtful guidance that I can trust. Nevertheless, as opposed to continuing to bang my head against the wall, I’ll ask for help.

The problem, of course, is that asking anyone for anything in the complex political environment that is the modern American workplace is anything but straightforward – and why that is, is the subject of this week’s post.


“My door is always open”

There is, of course, someone you’re supposed to seek out when you have a question at work, or have concerns as to how best accomplish those tasks that have been assigned to you. That person even has a title:


In their article “The role of the manager: What’s really important…,” researcher Allen Kraut and his colleagues assert that a major management task is to “provide technical expertise to help subordinates resolve work problems or questions.”[1]

They are not alone in believing this. The authors of The Enthusiastic Employee (2005) also insist that providing guidance “is among the most basic of a manager’s responsibilities.”[2] Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School points out that most workers expect their supervisors to take responsibility “for solving problems the subordinates found intractable.”[3] And Rodd Wagner and James Harter (authors of 12, The Elements of Great Managing) contend that it doesn’t matter what this individual is called, be it “friend, coach, advisor, sponsor, counselor, supporter,” – or manager. Instead, what is important is that “the employee feels she is not abandoned inside the business.”[4]

To be sure, managers are often uniquely qualified to serve in this capacity. It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for a manager to have once held the position occupied by those he or she is now charged with managing. (A former salesperson who is now a sales manager, for example). In fact, many organizations may not consider someone for promotion to management until he or she has mastered all of the capabilities and skills required of those reporting to him or her.

For all of these reasons then, managers of all shapes, sizes, and styles might be heard insisting that “my door is always open.”[5] This by now familiar refrain seems to have become the de facto expression most managers resort to when attempting to communicate to their employees (and perhaps convince themselves) that they are ready, willing, and able to serve in this capacity, and help employees do their jobs in the manner they need to be done.[6]

Unfortunately, however, the organizational reality is often quite different.

In fact, best intentions aside, most managers are anything but receptive to employees who cross the threshold of their offices with their questions and/or problems. And this is for a variety of reasons.

For starters, most managers feel a bit overwhelmed by all they have to do already – or at least that’s what many confess to, when asked. [7] As a consequence, the idea of taking time out of a very busy workday to help someone out—even if it’s one of their own subordinates—is not likely to be high on their list of priorities.

There is also the expectation that part of a manager’s job is to train employees to work through problems for themselves.[8] One way to perhaps force the issue—and get a subordinate to do just that—might therefore be to “close” that office door on occasion.

And then there is the delicacy of the matter to consider. Many people (managers included) still believe that a truly competent supervisor will have a ready answer for anything, despite the impossibility of such an expectation.[9] As a result, in order to avoid any potential embarrassment, a manager may take some pains to avoid, or even subtly discourage questions from their direct reports.


The advisor-evaluator paradox

If managers aren’t crazy about their advisor/counselor/coach/supporter role, the feeling, it seems, is mutual. While most employees know they should go to their supervisor when they need help, direction or feedback, typically they’re anything but excited by the prospect.[10]

And this, it turns out, is for a very good reason.

One of the oldest unresolved dilemmas in all of management science is what might be referred to as the “advisor-evaluator paradox.” Simply put, it is the acknowledgement that a fundamental conflict of interest is created any time the roles of advisor and evaluator are assigned to the same person.[11]

Consider, for instance, that if you or I stood accused of a crime, we wouldn’t solicit legal advice from the arresting officer, or prosecuting attorney. Instead, we would hire (or be provided) counsel of our own who is sworn to confidentiality. This is because the information gleaned in acting as “counselor” or “advisor” might later be used against us when it comes time for that person to act as “prosecutor,” “judge,” or “jury.”[12]

(If this sounds at all familiar, it should. Recall that I first acknowledged the existence of this paradox in my inaugural post: “Why your boss probably sucks.”).

The same holds true in the workplace. What a manager might learn about an employee based on the questions he or she asks, or the assistance he or she requests, might just as easily be used against that same individual when it comes to assess his or her performance. This is something that most people probably pick up on quite quickly, with the expected consequence: a chilling effect on any advisee-advisor relationship that might develop between an employee and his or her supervisor.

Consider my own experience. While employed as a chemist in pharmaceutical research and development I can point to any number of times when I probably should have turned to my manager for some sort of guidance or assistance. As a scientist with 30 years experience working in the industry, he was perhaps the ideal person for me to approach. And on occasion, I would seek out his input.

But not if I could help it.

You see, I also realized that—as my boss—he was expected to assess my on-the-job performance as well. It was his responsibility, in other words, to make sure I successfully accomplished those tasks that had been assigned to me, and in a timely fashion, and in general performed my job at an acceptable level. Therefore, I very quickly realized that to approach him with a question—or for help of any sort—would be, in effect, to confess the limits of my own technical or managerial capabilities to the very person charged with assessing them.

And that, to me, just did not seem like a particularly good idea, no matter how supportive he seemed…and whether his door was open or not.

Nevertheless, at most companies today, managers (like my own) are still saddled with both roles as matter of routine, despite the obvious conflict of interest. Indeed, that a manager act as advisor to their subordinates, as well as their evaluator is considered standard operating procedure at most for-profit enterprises.[13] And yet what management theorist Douglas McGregor observed almost 60 years ago still holds true today:

“The role of judge and the role of counselor are incompatible.”[14]


The collegiality of your colleagues

If asking your manager for his or her help, advice, assistance, or direction is less than appealing, the alternatives are not, in fact, all that much better.

There are, of course, your co-workers to consider – and again, they too would seem in some ways ideally suited to help you should you need it. It is often the case, for instance, that your closest colleagues will be engaged in very similar work to what you yourself are doing, perhaps belonging to the same department, or workgroup. Or, it may be that in the not-so-distant past, one of them held the position that you know hold. It is therefore quite possible that someone you work with may have already encountered whatever problem or issue that you now face, and having worked through it themselves, be able to advise you as to how to do the same.

Many organizations recognize this—that their employees are in essence an enormous reservoir of organizational expertise and experience that they might tap in to.[15] “Our people are our most important asset” is not just something nice that managers say; it’s true. In fact, many businesses now go so far as to design their corporate campuses, and/or the layout of their workspaces, just to increase the likelihood that chance encounters between co-workers will further facilitate collaboration and cooperative efforts.[16]

If only it were that simple.

In fact, while turning to a colleague for help might seem the ideal approach to take in many instances, doing so is not without it’s own set of complications – ones that have very little to do with how your offices are laid out.

For starters, there is the simple fact that—like managers—most people have plenty to do at work already.[17] Hassling a co-worker with questions, or burdening them with your own problems is thus perhaps something most people are loathe to do out of simple consideration.

Then there is the fact that most workers harbor a desire for respect.[18] To he held in high regard by colleagues can be, for some, one of the most satisfying aspects of their job. To be in constant need of assistance, however, could reasonably be interpreted by colleagues as incompetence, or perhaps that a particular individual is in over his or her head.

Finally, there is this to consider: Our closest colleagues—that is, those individuals who might be best suited to help us work through our most difficult challenges—may also be the very same people with whom we are competing for raises, promotions, and other organizational rewards.[19]

And as such, they may not be…well, all that “motivated” to help us out.

Why help a colleague “shine a little brighter,” in other words, if doing so might end up costing you down the road?[20]

Now in my own career experiences I must confess to having been quite lucky. Never for a moment have I doubted the integrity of any of my colleagues—nor the advice they offered me on those occasions I asked for it. Most were more than generous with their time as well, and all too happy to help me out when I requested it. But that does not negate the fact that there was very little incentive for them to do so – unless, of course, I was willing to credit them for their help in some way.

But if that’s what it takes, why turn to a colleague at all? In other words, if the whole point in approaching a colleague is to conceal any weaknesses on your part from your manager, yet securing that assistance requires you to publicly acknowledge your coworker’s help in the end anyway, you might as well have just gone to your boss in the first place. Right?


Ask not what your co-workers can do for you…

So there you have it.

If you, as an employee, are unsure of what to do, or how best to do your job, the options available to you for counsel, assistance, advice, or direction aren’t terribly inviting.

Ask your boss, and you risk damaging whatever reputation you may enjoy in his or her eyes. Ask a colleague, but be wary; he or she is not necessarily motivated to help you, unless due credit is given.

And so this is the great irony: The workplace is teaming with people who have the knowledge, expertise, and insights to help us perform our jobs better, faster, and more efficiently. But it is not necessarily in our own best interests to ask for it, nor in their best interests to provide it.

So how did it come to this?

Well, the problem here actually has nothing to do with the people your company employs, their attitudes, nor your organization’s “culture” – as some might suppose.[21] And it’s got nothing to do with whether your manager’s office door is open wide enough.

Instead, the problem lies in how your company is structured. (And I’m not talking about how its offices are laid out, either.)

The “structure” I refer to is the organizational blueprint that most modern companies use to coordinate their efforts. It is an organizational design subscribed to, for the most part unquestioningly (and even unknowingly), by the managers, executives, and CEOs who manage these enterprises – whether they care to admit it or not.

It is also a means of organizing all but universally accepted—if not necessarily embraced—by the management academia. And it is furthermore codified by the business schools at which they teach, and thus permeates the MBA curricula these schools continue to offer.

It is therefore a way of managing that continues to be impressed upon the minds of the managers, CEOs, and business leaders of tomorrow who attend them.



Next in the series: Why that MBA might not be worth as much as you think



[1] Kraut, Allen I.; Pedigo, Patricia R.; McKenna, D. Douglas; and Dunnette, Marvin D. “The role of the manager: What’s really important in different management jobs.” Academy of Management Executive 19:4 (2005), p. 123.

[2] Sirota, David; Mischkind, Louis A.; and Metzer, Micheal Irwin. 2005. The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want. Upper Saddle river, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, p. 208.

[3] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 28.

[4] Wagner, Rodd; and Harter, James K. 2006. 12, The Element of Great Managing. New York: Gallup Press, p. 83.

[5] So far, I have been unable to determine the origin of this particular management cliché. The earliest mention of it that I have come across is David Packard’s reference to Hewlett-Packard having an “open door policy” in the company’s nascent days (From The HP Way, 1995, New York: Harper Business, p. 157).

[6] “Is your door really always open?” by Jason Fried, Inc. Magazine, November, 2015. http://www.inc.com/magazine/201311/jason-fried/what-open-door-policies-actually-mean.html. Retrieved May 18, 2016.

[7] “Reclaim your job” by Sumantra Ghoshal and Heike Bruch. Harvard Business Review, March, 2004. https://hbr.org/2004/03/reclaim-your-job. Retrieved May 18, 2016.

[8] “How managers can teach employees to solve their own problems” by Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell. Fast Company (online edition), Sept. 28, 2015. http://www.fastcompany.com/3051480/know-it-all/how-managers-can-teach-employees-to-solve-their-own-problems. Retrieved May 13, 2016.

[9] “Why bosses don’t need to know all the answers,” Fortune Magazine (online version), June 1, 2011. http://fortune.com/2011/06/01/why-bosses-dont-need-to-know-all-the-answers/; “Managers can’t know everything: 6 tips for managing outside your areas of expertise” by Chuck Leddy. September 14, 2011. http://www.middlemarketcenter.org/expert-perspectives/managers-cant-know-everything-6-tips-for-managing-outside-your-areas-of-expertise. Retrieved June 8, 2016.

[10] “Are your employees avoiding you? Managerial strategies for closing the feedback gap” by Sherry E. Moss and Juan I. Sanchez. Academy of Management Executive, 18:1 (2004).

[11] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 209.

[12] In effect, the US Constitution acknowledges this fundamental conflict of interest in the Sixth Amendment, which states that defendants have a right to counsel. It has since been further codified by stipulating that the accused first be informed of their Miranda Rights in order for their testimony to be admissible in a court of law.

[13] For a complete list of what are currently thought to be a manager’s primary responsibilities, please see my post “Throw out that management advice book (Part 2): The Ten Commandments.”

[14] McGregor, Douglas. 2006. The Human Side of Enterprise – Annotated Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, New York, p. 117. (Originally published in 1960.)

[15] Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books; “Valuing Your Most Valuable Assets” by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer. Harvard Business Review (online edition), Oct. 10, 2011. https://hbr.org/2011/10/valuing-your-most-valuable/; “Nine Ways to Keep Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset – It’s Employees” by Roger Dean Duncan, Forbes Leadership Forum, Aug. 20, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2013/08/20/nine-ways-to-keep-your-companys-most-valuable-asset-its-employees/#497c814b4390. Both retrieved June 23, 2016.

[16] Apple: “Look Inside Apple’s Spaceship Headquarters With 24 All-New Renderings” by Kyle Vanhemert, Wired (online), Nov. 11, 2013. http://www.wired.com/2013/11/a-glimpse-into-apples-crazy-new-spaceship-headquarters/. Google: “How Goolge’s Flexible Workspace Ignites Creative Collaboration” posted at http://www.fastcompany.com/3017824/work-smart/how-googles-flexible-workspace-ignites-creative-collaboration-on-wheels. Both retrieved June 23, 2016.

[17] “Study: US workers burned out,” posted by ABC News, May 16, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93295&page=1. “This is why we feel so overworked” by Jeanne Sahadi. CNNMoney, Sept. 10, 2015. http://money.cnn.com/2015/09/10/pf/working-too-hard/. Both retrieved June 16, 2016.

[18] Moss, op. cit.; Sirota, op. cit., p. 12; “The 6 most important things employees need from their leaders to realize high potential” by Glenn Llopis. Forbes (online edition), Sept. 30, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2013/09/30/the-6-most-important-things-employees-need-from-their-leaders-to-realize-high-potential/#26387387315c. Retrieved June 16, 2016.

[19] “Get employees to compete against each other” by Serguei Netessine and Valery Yakubovich. Havard Business Review (online edition), June 1, 2012. https://hbr.org/2012/06/get-employees-to-compete-again. “Internal competition at work: Worth the trouble?” by Shelly Dubois. Fortune.com, Jan. 25, 2012. http://fortune.com/2012/01/25/internal-competition-at-work-worth-the-trouble/. Both retrieved June 16, 2016.

[20] “What to do when a co-worker tries to make you look bad” by Stephanie Vozza. Fast Company (online edition), Sept. 28, 2015. http://www.fastcompany.com/3051385/know-it-all/what-to-do-when-a-coworker-tries-to-make-you-look-bad. “Coworker Sabotage” posted Aug. 20, 2015 by The Creative Group (TCG) at http://creativegroup.mediaroom.com/coworker-sabotage. “Handle a sabotaging co-worker” by Beverly West. Posted on Monster.com at http://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/handle-a-sabotaging-coworker. All retrieved June 16, 2016.

[21]“Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement” by Mark D. Cannon and Robert Witherspoon. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005) (2005): 120-134.

1 Comment

  1. Owen

    I think this highlights the need for pay to be heavily based on shares. People need to have motivations that are strongly aligned with the success of the company.


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