Open Doors: How to Have the Time

By Chris Ihrig

Open-door policies are encouraged as a way to improve morale. When employees feel able to express their ideas, concerns, and complaints, they feel heard. When employees feel they are heard, they are more likely to remain engaged. Open doors can also be a source of valuable ideas.

Unfortunately, the more frequent scenario is one where an employee walks into the boss’s office with a monkey on their back and attempts to get the monkey off their back and onto the boss’s back. When the boss isn’t skillful in avoiding transfer of the monkey, the boss can become frustrated by the open-door policy because all the monkeys end up on their back and keep them from accomplishing their goals.

A famous article, originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1974 and again in 1999, addressed the problem of jumping monkeys.

When an employee brings a problem (monkey) to you, your goal should be to support the employee in solving the problem. The only time the monkey should end up on your back is when the problem wasn’t the employee’s problem in the first place. For example, if an employee brings concerns about illegal activities that aren’t part of their job, the monkey should move to your back until you can transfer it to the appropriate people. But if the employee is struggling with a co-worker or with a project, you are support, not the problem-solver.

Sometimes, just defining the monkey brings solutions into view. Conversations that bring clarity are a good use of your time. Once the monkey is defined, where it should be assigned becomes an easier decision. The HBR article encouraged assigning responsibility at the lowest possible level in the organization. The final step is a system to follow up on the monkeys.

Being prepared for employees who try to transfer monkeys from their back to yours will make you more supportive and welcoming when employees approach you. If you know that the encounter won’t end with the wrong monkeys on your back, it will be easier to be receptive when employees take advantage of the open-door policy.