Real openness better than an open-door policy

by Thobile Madonsela | Published on 25 April 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Sometimes, one can talk to people about their workplace experiences and receive such different impressions that it is hard to believe they are talking about the same organisation. This is especially the case between senior management and non-managerial staff members, where the saying ‘it’s always rosy at the top’ carries a great deal of truth. What is the reason for the huge disparities among people’s experiences – is it simply that one’s position on the organogram determines one’s ‘view’, or is it something else? And, most importantly, how do we close the gap?

Open door

As cliché as this might be, it is true that everyone wants to be heard, to know that their point has been considered, even though the decision may not be altered.

One way that those at management level try to limit the impact of hierarchy on people’s experiences is to have what is popularly referred to as an ‘open-door policy’.  There’s a difference, though, between the real door and the actual ‘openness’ of the person sitting behind it. This is a human conundrum, not a structural one, so: how do we bring the ‘top’ closer to the lived realities of the majority?  Perhaps it is not an open-door policy that is needed, but rather just a bit more shared time at the coffee stand. Let me explain.

It is a given that managers manage, but ‘management’ is an elusive term that often gets taken for granted. What some people might remember from their student years is that there are the basic management principles of planning, organising, leading and controlling, in order to achieve results. But in reality, managers need to do all those things in a way that puts people first, seeing them as human beings and not just role-players who have to make a contribution to meet the strategic goals of the organisation. If the only dialogue between managers and subordinates takes place at performance management, we have already failed.

There needs to be a concerted effort to build relationships with subordinates. Management should foster interaction and conversation. To be able to foster such interaction, there need to be opportunities to ‘bump’ into people. Simple as it may sound, one of the best places for natural interactions is the office kitchen. The kitchen is a place where people congregate when they need a break, take lunch or go for their afternoon caffeine shot. This may be the best place to start ‘humanising’ the hierarchy, simply through conversation. Topics about people’s studies, hobbies, children, and so on, easily take place in this environment. However, the trick is to make a mental note of the information volunteered and to ask about it in future.  This isn’t rocket science, it’s just how people work: it shows that you have listened and are interested in who they are. There should be an emphasis of the manager’s availability to just listen. As cliché as this might be, it is true that everyone wants to be heard, to know that their point has been considered, even though the decision may not be altered.

The problem is that managers often have their coffee or tea made for them and brought to their office. By doing so, they are missing out on a huge opportunity to get to know who they are working with, and what their experiences are like. Their door may be officially ‘open’, but the real message sent is one of closedness and separation.

The disparities in perspectives, in my view, is due to the lack of genuine relationships that employees have with one another, and especially with their managers. Building and fortifying these relationships is critical.  Having openness – real openness – is a function of trust, and trust is not something that can only be created through policy.     

Thobile Circle 2


Thobile Madonsela is an Associate Subject Matter Expert at The Ethics Institute. She holds an Honours Degree in Public Management and Governance from the University of Johannesburg. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University.