[IMGCAP(1)]Open-door policies are like belly-buttons: Everyone has one, but no one’s sure what they’re for, or what to do with them.

In theory, of course, they’re meant to boost workplace engagement, to make employees feel like management is accessible and, more important, concerned about their thoughts, feelings and issues. In theory, they demonstrate that management is eager to listen to good ideas, timely warnings, or just plain complaints from all levels of the organization, which is a good thing. The theory behind open-door policies is sound.

In practice, though, open-door policies are usually a cop-out.

Most managers use them in place of actually managing. “My door is always open,” they say, with the expectation that any and all problems will be brought to their attention. When an important engagement goes south near the deadline, they’re surprised to learn that there were signs of trouble all along. When a valued client fires the firm, they’re stunned to discover that the client didn’t feel they were getting the service they needed. When a high-potential staffer leaves, they’re shocked — shocked! — to learn that the employee was unhappy. Their door was always open, managers say: Why didn’t someone warn them?

Rather than use them as a way to increase communication, many managers use open-door policies as a way to outsource responsibility. “My door is always open,” they say, in the belief that that makes it everyone else’s job to walk through that door and tell them what they need to know. It’s a passive-aggressive way of shifting the burden for addressing problems, placing it squarely on the shoulders of the client or employee.

That may seem contradictory, given that managers have frequently repeated their willingness to listen to anyone who comes through their open door. But here’s why open-door policies are usually a cop-out in practice: Most people don’t like to bring trouble to their bosses.

Yes, there are the chronic complainers, and the tone-deaf whackjobs who don’t understand why management isn’t interested in the fact that the peanuts in the Peanut M&Ms in the cafeteria vending machines are too large, resulting in an incorrect ratio of chocolate to peanut. But by and large, most normal people don’t want to walk through your open door and tell you that a project is behind schedule, or that a client is unhappy — or that they themselves are unsatisfied in their work. To most people, that seems like a sure way to get a black mark in their permanent record, and a reputation as a troublemaker.

To most people, the open door doesn’t seem like an opportunity; it seems like a trap.

Don’t get me wrong: Some very lucky workplaces really do have the level of trust that’s required to make an open-door policy work in practice the way it does in theory. And every other workplace should have the policies in place so that when people are desperate enough to overcome their natural reluctance, they have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be listened to.

In between, though, managers need to stop expecting open-door policies to do their jobs for them. They need to dig up problems on their own, with smart questions about the progress of an engagement, for instance, or carefully constructed client satisfaction surveys. And particularly in accounting, where qualified staff are so very hard to find, they need to proactively interact with employees to encourage them to open up about their concerns, their needs and their goals. Go out and ask how things are going, both off the cuff and at regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings.

Communication is a two-way street, it’s true, but most of the traffic has to come from management’s side. In the end, the best kind of open-door policy is the one where you open your door to come out and talk to people.

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