One of the elements of working in small business that I have always appreciated is having direct communication with the owner or CEO of the company. The ability to freely express ideas and concerns at the top level is priceless. As an employee, it makes you feel valued anytime the person who signs your paycheck takes time to listen to you. This type of Open Door Policy (ODP as it is commonly referred to) can have many benefits for an organization, its culture, and its people.
While many companies strive to promote and achieve an ODP, there are times when it can be detrimental to their cause. Consider the small- to mid-size entrepreneurial company that started in the owner’s garage with a handful of trusted colleagues, friends, or family members. As that business grows and more people are added, mid-levels of management become necessary and are assumed by those with tenure in the business. A chain of command is formed. Eventually, the business will outgrow some of those senior employees and more-skilled managers will need to be brought into the organization while the founding members are relegated to more appropriate roles.
In my observation, these types of situations are more common than not among service-based businesses. Where things get funky is when an ODP starts to interfere with the chain of command. Senior employees on the lower end of the organization chart, but with long-standing relationships with the owner, feel entitled to go to them with any situation and expect resolution, ignoring the levels of authority that precede. This can be harmful and sometimes catastrophic to a company’s culture in many ways.
Jumping rank on the organization chart undermines the authority of mid-level managers who have a duty and a responsibility for the performance of their departments and teams within the organization. When subordinates go over their head, there is a significant lack of respect for authority that is conveyed, jeopardizing their ability to effectively manage the employees of their department. Even worse, if the owner makes a decision or gives direction to the employee that is out of alignment with the manager, mixed signals, confusion, and chaos can ensue. These are dangerous waters that can sink a ship quickly.
In this situation, the natural tendency is to close the ODP and adopt big, corporate-style policies with militaristic-like qualities. The result can feel like a bunch of independent work groups with their own agendas and a fragmented culture where everyone is just looking out for their own back. Senior leadership is viewed as those sitting in an ivory tower and frontline workers feel like minions. This type of bureaucratic environment is certainly not healthy for a growing business.
This entire topic can be a perplexing scenario, because the chain of command is necessary and an ODP is proven effective, especially in small businesses. The critical component to having both coexist resides in leadership.
In the book Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, author Patrick Lencioni writes, “In most situations, silos rise up not because of what executives are doing purposefully, but rather because of what they are failing to do: provide themselves and their employees with a compelling context for working together.” He goes on to explain the importance of goals, objectives, and measurable standards of performance—all of which are governed by communication, bringing us back to the importance of an ODP.
Considering the likely scenarios that routinely play out in business involving bypassing the chain of command, I would propose that each and every scenario involves two important types of employees: tattletales and whistleblowers, both of whom must be treated very carefully by owners and CEOs. This is because how the situations are handled is the key to maintaining an ODP while respecting the chain of command.
These informants can sometimes be prolific in an organization and are often seen hovered around the water cooler, engaging in gossip, and feeding fuel to the latest personnel drama. They also wear two hats, the first of which is “permission seeker.” The permission seeker tattletale engages in the classic scenario where they ask for permission from their manager but don’t like the answer, so they go over their boss’s head to try to get permission from a higher level. Most parents can relate to this. It’s the same as when mom says no and the child asks dad, hoping to get a yes.
The second hat is “self-interest” where direction that is given or decisions made by their immediate supervisor conflict with the employee’s personal desires or agendas. This action can be reckless, especially when the employee’s values are not in alignment with those of the company. If left unaddressed, the resentment can turn into a cancer that spreads rapidly through the ranks.
Senior leaders must deal with tattletales carefully but firmly, understanding that how they are dealt with is more important than the context of the situation itself. Regardless of which hat the tattletale is wearing at the time, the response should be consistent in referring the employee back to the decision or direction of their manager. The importance of a unified front is just as critical in business as it is in parenting. Any difference of opinion between the owner and manager should be discussed in a private meeting, with the ultimate decision being communicated through the chain of command. When executed correctly, tattletales either fall in line quickly or leave—both of which are positive outcomes.
The term whistleblower may seem a little harsh when you think of them in the same company as folks like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or W. Mark Felt, because whistleblowing is often associated with illicit activity. However, if we consider illicit activity as not just illegal but that which is not in alignment with the best interests of the company, we can see value in what whistleblowers bring to the table.
These scenarios can occur frequently, especially when there are long standing and loyal employees who have a healthy relationship with the individual at the top of the organization chart. With an ODP, these folks, or anyone else in the company, should feel free to speak to senior leaders about concerns that could be detrimental to the organization; are against company policy; or place employees, customers, or other stakeholders in harm’s way.
One important element to consider with respect to whistleblowing is when the employee has directly challenged an idea or decision with their immediate supervisor. Senior leaders should not openly criticize managers in front of subordinates. This is critical to preserving the integrity in the chain of command. Rather, they should validate the concerns of the employee who comes to them, reassure them that they will look into the situation, and then follow up with them—with the supervisor, when appropriate—in a timely manner.
As we come to understand more about the importance of the roles that tattletales and whistleblowers play with respect to maintaining an ODP, we also realize that using them in a productive manner involves coaching them on the need to give their immediate supervisors the opportunity to address their issues and concerns before bringing them to upper management. It also involves understanding the temptation to do so given their tenure or relationship with the owner. Deciphering the difference between a genuine concern for the welfare of the organization and disingenuous personal agendas can be difficult. Regardless, employees who gripe and complain about issues simply because they don’t benefit them personally should be dealt with firmly and swiftly, making it clear that their manager’s decisions are supported at the highest level.
All of this must, of course, be coupled with strong levels of communication across the leadership and management teams of the company. There is no substitute in an organization for a clearly defined vision, core values, and measurable goals and objectives. The role of the owner/CEO is to disseminate this information on a routine basis, listen carefully to all employees, and act appropriately in a timely fashion by maintaining an ODP and respecting the chain of command.