Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why Your "Door Shouldn't Always be Open"

“My Door’s Always Open”
A former direct report of mine (let’s call him “Keith”) called me one day to describe a challenge he was having with his manager. Keith is an experienced director-level professional, and his boss (let’s call him “Nigel”) is the VP.

Keith was having a significant challenge with one of the employees on his team (let’s call her “Megan”). Megan was constantly pushing back on changes that Keith was trying to drive. Worse yet, Megan was meeting frequently with Nigel, to “discuss her career opportunities.” Nigel and Keith both valued Megan’s intelligence and experience, but for Keith, Megan had become unmanageable. Why?

Keith did some digging to identify the cause of this ongoing dysfunction. Prior to Keith joining the company, Nigel had said to Megan “You’re a key player and I’m going to be looking to you for feedback on Keith’s performance, how you’re doing, and your continued thoughts on the direction of the department. Remember, my door’s always open.” Ironically, that invitation led to frequent closed-door meetings between Nigel and Megan. Keith was the outsider. Uh-oh!

Why Your Door Shouldn’t “Always be Open”
Without intending to, and without even realizing the inevitable consequences, Nigel had: 
  • Undermined Keith’s on-boarding process i.e. establishing Keith as the new department leader.
  • Ensured that Megan would focus her energy and loyalty on building her relationship with Nigel rather than Keith.
  • Created a “stalemate” (who’s the boss?) situation that would undermine progress and productivity in the department.
  • Sent a message to all front-line workers that they could bypass their manager and take issues directly to their manager’s manager.

Making the transition from an individual contributor into management is a major role change that many good leaders handle successfully. Sometimes the smoothness of that transition causes those same leaders to underestimate the challenge of transitioning to the next level i.e. managing other managers. It’s a common mistake for new second-level leaders to try to maintain the same relationships with individual contributors, which is devastating to the front-line manager and detrimental to the entire organization.

If this seems obvious - why is this mistake so common?  New second-level managers can be self-conscious or even insecure about making the step up to managing managers. And it’s not unusual for them to make visible, even awkward gestures and statements to reassure front-line staff that they’ll stay “a man (or woman) of the people.” This is often based on the assumption that this will engender greater loyalty from the front-line and will help the leader stay in touch with the needs of the staff.

The problem is that this well-intentioned invitation can easily be misunderstood, or even exploited by front-line troops. It can undermine your management team and inadvertently emphasize that loyalty to you, and not your front-line  managers, is the ticket to success in your “new regime.”

More Backlash from Your “Open Door”
Let’s consider an example where the premise is opportunity for a talented employee, rather than back-channel feedback about a manager. Suppose now that you are having a conversation with a front-line  employee. And because you’re impressed with his productivity and ambition, you suggest that he take the lead in the department’s next major project (e.g. product launch, new training program, process overhaul, etc.). Now that you’ve offered it, he knows that he doesn’t need his manager as a sponsor, and the rest of the group knows that you’re the person that will give them an “inside track” on new opportunities. His next step will be to tell his manager that you selected him for the high-visibility project. Now this blind-sided manager will need to deal with reprioritizing and reassigning other projects. What a mess!

When you take any direct action as the result of a one-on-one meeting, you’re “colluding” with the employee and undermining the manager, whether you mean to or not.

A Sustainable Leadership Approach
Now imagine a situation where you had the idea to let this employee manage the next big departmental project, but instead of offering it directly, you discuss it first with his manager. The front-line manager will have input to the process e.g. let you know how the employee has been performing, as well as what other tasks and projects are on his plate. You and the manager could then agree on what gets de-prioritized or reassigned so that a complete game-plan is ready for communication i.e. reinforcing that the manager is in-charge. And then, and this is the most important piece, the manager can meet with the employee to explain that there’s a new project opportunity, that you both had discussed it and how she felt that the employee would be a good fit and get valuable experience from it.
Handling the situation in this way:
  1. Builds the employee’s loyalty to his manager.
  2. Demonstrates to the rest of the team that the manager is a strong advocate for his team.
  3. Lets the front-line know that the way to get new opportunities is to work through their manager.
  4. Builds loyalty to you at all levels of your organization.

That’s a win for everyone and for the business, which is great for you.  Moreover, you haven’t “lost” any loyalty from front-line employees by handling it the right way i.e. respecting and empowering your managers.

Once you’ve undermined your managers and set the expectation of collusion with front-line employees, it can be nearly impossible to recover. In most cases, when a situation like the one with Keith, Nigel, and Megan develops, it’s unresolvable without one of the involved parties leaving the group or even leaving the company.

Have you ever been undermined by a well-intentioned Director or VP in this way? Were you able to recover, and if so, how? And how did you inform your manager of the damage he or she was doing by managing around you?


  1. Great post. One of my managers reached down into the organization on a regular basis which created disruption and disempowered his 1st level managers. Moreover, it fed the egos of prima donnas which managers then had to cater to!

  2. I've had CEO's who do this - bypassing several levels of management. Chaos!

  3. Any experienced VP, like Nigel, should simply ask: 'Have you talked to Keith about this?' Or, 'I have some ideas I'd like to float by Keith before I respond' One last step that I found helpful, both Nigel and Keith meet w/Megan - but Keith does the talking and Nigel does the head wagging. Megan feels empowered, but Keith is still in charge.

  4. used to happen all the time at Oracle. The VPs would directly reach down to the developers and undermine the managers.

  5. So what's the solution? It's obvious that's the WRONG thing to do but does anyone have examples of how to CORRECT this at the source? I.e. pratical ways to get "Nigel" to stop reaching down into the org. Please share!

  6. In the interest of minimizing bureaucracy and maximizing expediency, where's the line drawn between what can be shared between Nigel and Megan, and what ought to first be shared with Keith? How does Keith earn the respect he deserves from Nigel and Megan alike to mitigate this "open door" practice?

  7. Great question and thanks for asking! The solution starts with Nigel. I advised Keith based on my own experience, as I had faced a similar challenge earlier in my career. In that case, I was direct with my manager and explained the undesirable dynamic that had been created, and how he and the whole organization could be more efficient and effective if he got out of the business of “dual-managing” one of my reports. Initially, he was a bit defensive and then reassured him that I thought his intentions were noble (i.e. feeding his ego). Then I calmly and carefully showed him the ramifications and explained that having an open-door dialog with my reports was fine (e.g. “Have you heard any feedback from Sales on the new training program yet?”) but that problems started when he took action on behalf of employees, especially on things that were my responsibility (i.e. task assignment for my employees, role definitions, etc.). Ultimately, he agreed. He was careful for a few months, but his natural style was to dual-manage. Therefore, I had to remind him every few months when I’d see the early warning signs that he was slipping back into bad habits. It never became a significant problem again.



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