Business and Finance

An Expat Manager’s Juggling Act: Practising an Open Door Policy While Maintaining the Chain of Command

Bringing an approachable and accessible managerial style to Malaysia yields many benefits. However, this is a reminder that while generally positive, there can be a subtle downside to the open-door style of Western leadership that many expat managers employ while in Malaysia.

In my various GM roles while working in Asia, I have always made it a point to spend a lot of time in the field: travelling with sales reps, meeting customers, seeing our products in use, etc. There is a huge upside to doing this – learning first-hand about problems, opportunities, competitors, employees, market trends, and more, but there is a potential downside, as well. Smart salespeople will always take the opportunity to raise issues (OK) and make requests (not always OK) directly to the top of the management hierarchy.

In one example, I recall working with our Sales Manager in Kuching, who told me how much he preferred ‘Western managers’ like me. He related how his local manager was obsessed with, in his words, ‘unimportant minor details,’ and that his experience with managers like me was that we focused more on the big picture rather than on minor daily issues. Then he attempted to present his side of a few gripes he had, presumably to enlist my immediate support. But rather than pump up my chest and proudly think how superior ‘our’management style was, alarm bells were ringing as it was clear he was trying to get the inside track right to the top, looking for support without giving me the benefit of hearing both sides of the issue.

In another example, I was recently chatting with an expat HR Manager from an American company in the
process of setting up a new facility in Penang. She was telling me that while they were in temporary offices during the construction of the plant, the VP/ Plant Manager insisted on sitting in a cubicle right in the middle of the temp office. She further explained that while local employees were initially uncomfortable with the ‘big boss’ being so near, once they adjusted, a veritable deluge of requests were coming his way – some major, some minor – due to the easy access his proximity provided. Being new to the whole situation, he was not sure how to best handle it.

Finally, and speaking in this instance from a more middle management perspective, I also had two experiences earlier in my career when I was the ‘in between boss,’ where my boss was very close to one of my subordinates. This put me in sometimes difficult situations when they had spoken on issues where my subordinate was not happy with something I had done, and I was confronted on the issue by my boss – who had clearly only heard one side, but evidently made up his mind already.

In all of the above scenarios, an appropriate response from the big boss could be one simple question: “What did your direct supervisor say?” There may well be legitimate gripes and conflicts, but you (as the boss) should involve yourself only once the situation has become intractable, and always only once you know both sides of the story. It’s what the military refers to as the chain of command. The good news about being open, but still enforcing the chain of command, is that it will keep concerns from being avoided (pleasing your employees), while allowing a proper respect for authority (pleasing your managers).

Key takeaways:

1. Having open-door and open communication policies is good. You always want to be approachable, especially with ideas and initiatives from anybody on your team.

2. In a perfect work world, employee conflicts would always be resolved at lower levels. But there is no perfect world, and employees in Malaysia can be very savvy at cutting through the hierarchy and going directly to the top. In cases of genuine employee mistreatment, this is absolutely appropriate, but in the great majority of issues, it is not.

3. That never means you hide, and it never means you avoid conflicts. But not only do you not have time to step into every issue, there’s a reason your organisational structure exists. Further to this, those closer to any situation are generally best equipped to handle it.

Whether you are at the top of the company or a step or two down, it needs to be known that your company operates utilising due process. Open door policies have tremendous upsides, but make sure that this policy doesn’t lend itself to abuse of the chain of command. That’s win-win, top to bottom leadership.


Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. To learn more, please visit or contact him with no obligation at [email protected]

A version of this article was originally published in The Expat magazine (June 2017) which is available online or in print via a free subscription.

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