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Five Reasons Why Leaders Need a Closed Door Policy

by Kevin Eikenberry on April 18, 2011

Let’s start with a short thinking exercise . . .

Think of every new leader speech you have ever heard.  They will all include “I have an open door policy.”  Does every leader truly practice that policy?

If you made a list of leadership clichés, the “open door policy” would likely make the top ten. Clichés exist because truth exists within them, and clichés often beg further examination beyond the nugget of truth.

Such is the case with the “open door policy”.

The intention of course is about availability, access and openness. When someone says their door is always open, they are implying that when you need help, advice or information, they will be available.  The problem here is twofold:

  • This is a hard policy to live up to. (Even if the door is open, it doesn’t mean the leader is available – look at your calendar, after all). So stating this universal policy often sets expectations you can’t live up to.
  • When the leader is available, they likely have work do to, and the interruptions of the open door can be detrimental to productivity. After all, leaders are there to serve their teams, and they have responsibilities and work output of their own.

That is the backdrop for my assertion that leaders need a closed door policy.  This doesn’t mean that access, availability and openness don’t matter — far to the contrary! Rather, a closed door policy as I will describe it actually allows for these things to exist realistically, and perhaps paradoxically, allows productivity to rise for everyone!

What is a Closed Door Policy?

Now that you are over your shock that I would debunk the leadership standard, let me describe what I mean.

Should you make yourself accessible and available to your team? Yes, of course, just not at their whim and leisure!  Think about it: when was the last time someone popped their head in the door with a question, interrupting your thinking and flow of work, with a question that was truly an emergency? How many of those questions could wait 15 minutes, 2 hours or until tomorrow?

The closed door policy is more like the office hours of a college professor. You knew when they were available and so you planned to meet with them, ask your questions and get your coaching during those times. This approach certainly made the professor more productive — and you too!

The closed door policy is about putting some discipline and intentionality into your work day for the purpose of creating better control of your time and skyrocketing your productivity.

Whether you use office hours, a planned time to meet with team members, or devise some other approach – the goal of the closed door policy is to create space for everyone to have greater productivity because there are fewer avoidable interruptions.

The Benefits

Here are five specific benefits you will gain from creating your version of a closed door policy.

You will create clearer, more accurate expectations. Since your door can’t be open all the time, or you sometimes ask people to come back later (or you aren’t in your office anyway), why not have an expectation you can deliver on?  By telling people when you are available or having some other process that creates a clear and reliable expectation, you set everyone up for success. You also manage people’s perception of your honesty and intentions.  Far better to be available when you say you will be than to say you are available and not be.

You will manage interruptions. While we all believe we can multi-task, that is a misnomer. Have you ever been working on an important project, document or plan and had someone pop in to ask you a question? After they leave, how long does it take you to reconnect with and be productive on the other piece of work again? Interruptions sap our productivity! By managing the chances for interruptions (remember there are few true emergencies and when they occur people will interrupt anyway) we are improving our productivity vastly.

You will develop others. A true open door policy is one of the fastest ways to hamstring the development of your team. Why? Because when they have a question they can immediately come ask you!  Would they ask you that question if you were on a business trip or vacation, or would they figure it out, make a decision without you, or wait until you were available to share their questions? In any of those cases, your availability is keeping them from learning.  If you truly want to coach and develop your team, you must be supportive and available, AND you must allow them to try new things! Closing the door and creating an expectation of trust helps people grow.

You will allow space for important, not just urgent, work. As leaders we must do work that is beyond the urgent. We must have time to think, plan, check our vision and more.  It is nearly impossible to do this with a constant focus on the urgent and immediate. A closed door policy is one step towards giving you the time you need to work on the most important things.

You will improve organizational productivity. When you close your door, explaining to your team why you are instituting this new process, you not only improve your productivity, but you improve theirs.  Some questions they will answer themselves. Some will go away, and those that they need to ask will be asked in an effective and efficient manner – and they will remain more focused with fewer of their own interruptions too!

Let me be clear – the intention behind an “open door policy” is fine, admirable, and important. In theory, this idea is to provide access to information, ideas, wisdom and help. Unfortunately, in practice this isn’t what happens. The unintended consequences that surface in a lack of time control and reduced productivity far outweigh the advantages.

Should leaders be accessible, available and open to conversations? Should they feedback and provide coaching? Of course they should – and if they don’t their effectiveness and value as a leader is severely limited. These goals can be reached — and in most cases reached more effectively — with a more realistic, structured and clear plan and approach. An approach that sometimes includes a closed door.

Update 4/22/11 – Based on on the conversation (on and offline) this post has created, I’ve written a follow-up, The Door is Just a Metaphor If you enjoyed this post, I think you will enjoy it too.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Robby Slaughter April 18, 2011 at 9:19 am

The phrase “open door policy” is certainly a cliché, and if actually implemented as “I’m available whenever you need me” it has all of the problems that you highlight.

What leaders mean by the phrase “I have an open door policy” is “I want you to think of me as approachable and trustworthy.” The danger here is the qualifier “think of me.” Most leaders don’t actually want to be approachable nor do they want to worry about being trusted by others. This is why the term “open door policy” is laughably incorrect.

Instead, I think leaders should adopt an “open mind policy.” This is unambiguous; an “open mind” clearly means “willing to consider any perspective fairly.” It also embraces the positive language (“open”) instead of (“closed”). It shows that a leader can be genuinely interested in frank discussion without instant judgment. In fact, an “open mind policy” leads to a “closed door policy.” This is a chance for people to discuss how to respect the power of focus, which something *everyone* needs.

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John E. Smith April 18, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Hi, Kevin – good post.

I love when conventional thinking is challenged and this definitely does so.

Like many others, I was raised with the idea of being an open, accessible leader, but without consideration of those excellent points you have outlined. Having an “open door” is not bad in and of itself, but how we approach this particular leadership tool makes all the difference.

I just have several comments. First, this is a perfect example of the opportunity to train and develop those we serve. As you point out, given an open door, many will just walk in without critically reflecting on why they are doing so. We get what we teach.

The leader has to demonstrate the ability to think beyond the moment and engage in critical thinking. As those you serve develop their abilities to think, they will solve some problems on their own and refine others to make using your services truly valuable.

Another part of this has to do with being able to identify emergencies, urgencies, and real priorities. Most of us need some work in this area, and the inability to tell the difference between something that is simply pressing and something that is really impacting is part of what has given open-door policies a bad name. This skill also has to be taught and shaped.

Thanks for a great post:)

John

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Damon Richards April 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Not so fast, Kevin. There are better ways to manage these staff interactions while developing your team AND leaving your door open. I always hated that my professors had office hours. In fact, as I look back now, the best of my professors did not have office hours. They instead challenged me to find them when I needed them.

The job of a good leader is to help his team develop the skills to operate without him. This comes from being able to take advantage of those teaching moments when they present themselves. Regularly scheduled chats may seem more efficient but they are less effective because them moment, whether it was truly urgent or not, is lost. As the leader, you can’t do your primary job if you’re hidden behind a closed door. These interruptions are your primary job.

This isn’t just true of the leader and his team. It’s also true of your organization and its customers. My outside technicians here at Port-to-Port Consulting wear shirts with our logo embroidered on them when they visit the offices of our customers. The reason isn’t to market the company. It’s to serve as a tickler for our customers. The logo reminds them of the computer question they’ve had for some time but never felt it important enough to pick up the phone or type out an email.

The unfortunate reality these days is that having the door open or closed doesn’t matter because your staff is just as likely to email, text, or IM you as to come strolling by your office with a question. So manage the interruptions by viewing them as teaching moments. Help your team grow when you are around. And if you have to focus on something that can’t be interrupted, leave the office entirely. Turn off your cell phone. Shut down your email. Get done with that monumental task, and then get back to your real job.

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Kevin Eikenberry April 20, 2011 at 10:07 am

Thanks Damon – I am working on a followup post (maybe two!) that will discuss some of your comments. I really appreciate your time and input!

Kevin :)

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David McGlasson April 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Funny, I have never thought that my saying I have an open door policy meant “right now, any time.” To me, it means you can ask me anything, when I am available. I strongly agree that managers need to manage their own time by setting boundaries, whether those be on interruptions from staff or from phone calls. My wife worked for a time in an environment where the department managers (her position) were expected to accept phone calls and visits from students without notice and no matter what was being disrupted. To no one’s surprise, this was a very ineffective way to work and was a huge stressor on the department managers. She no longer works there. Life is too short.

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Curt Bock April 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Interesting view.

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Alan Campbell April 20, 2011 at 5:01 am

Hi Kevin,

Very interesting and thought provoking article. Like the comments already posted I have often felt I should be available for my team but often work from home to avoid the interuptions and get things done. Working from home today I have time to reflect on how I will manage my time and the position of my door in the future.
Thanks

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Stephen Anfield April 20, 2011 at 8:10 am

I most certainly agree! I read an interesting article entitled, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” It examined the difference between those who create and those who manage. For individuals in creative fields, it is imperative to have solid blocks of time to think and create. Interrupting a “makers” day with meeting after meeting is not conducive to hard thinking and can detract from overall productivity.

While having an “open door policy” may seem “nice,” it may not necessarily be the best thing to get things done.

Great post! I completely relate!

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Ray Taylor April 20, 2011 at 8:46 am

The “open door”, especially for new managers leads to the conditions described by Bill Oncken and Donald Wass in their classic article Who’s Got the Monkey. Being accessible all the time and anytime leads to subordinates dumping problems on the manager. A manager, wanting to show her team she’s there for them, falls into the trap of taking everything off of her team and heaping it onto her workload.

The article makes the point that the manager is actually doing the team a huge disservice. What they really need is someone who will teach them the skills they need to handle business issues and become more valuable to the team. The open door is fine as long as the manager does a little triage on the questions coming through it. The pop ins to get rid of monkeys need to be met with the guidance for the associate to schedule 15 minutes so that you can develop a plan together.

While the article is over 30 years old it’s constantly refreshed and updated. Stephen Covey refers to it. Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week dusts off Oncken & Wass’s principles and puts a fresh irreverent tone on the cover to sell today but the ideas are timeless.

There is a new crop of managers emerging constantly and the message is needed. Thanks for continuing to provide management education, Kevin!

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Ashley Brandt April 20, 2011 at 9:49 am

Thanks for a thoughtful perspective Kevin.

I submit, though, that a big behavior you are over-looking is that too many leaders, who make a practice of closing their door, end up simply using those blocks of time to be an individual contributor vs. truly leading and inspiring their team. Many leaders have been promoted too early and close themselves in and do what they are comfortable doing — which is usually NOT leading but simply doing.

Your summation above assumes that the majority of leaders actually have the skills to rise above this; I think you assume too much.

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Kevin Eikenberry April 20, 2011 at 10:06 am

Thanks Ashley – I am writing a followup post that will mention some of your important points…

Kevin :)

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Gerald Gadsden April 20, 2011 at 10:02 am

Great post and comments. A leader needs to be accessible at all times. While some interruptions are warranted and many are not, a great leader knows how to manage either for his or her place of business.

Here’s a simple rule that works for me:
If my door is actually open I am available! If it is actually closed I am not to be interrupted except for emergencies which go though my Assostant! Simple process but one that works!

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Allyn Remonte April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

This is the dumbest thing that I’ve ever heard. Now I know why you are a consultant. It’s because you failed at working in the real world, so now you make money pontificating on how “it’s done”.

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Kevin Eikenberry April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Allyn – I appreciate your feedback. I realize this may seem counter-intuitive and is definitely not what is discussed most of the time, and while I am a consultant, I also am a business owner and leader of a team. I assure you these concepts work.

Thanks for reading!

Kevin :)

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Donald Randall April 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I tell my people that the reason that I have an open door policy is so that it doesn’t hurt quite as much when I throw them out!

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Kevin Eikenberry April 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Thanks Donald – that made me smile!

K :)

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Scott Rowe April 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Good Luck with your closed door policy catching on, Kevin. The reason most managers have an open door policy is because their bosses have an “open door policy”, and so on. Try being the only one in a row of offices with the door closed, and you quickly have HR or a Sr. manager knocking. Yeah, try posting office hours, and you are not a “team player”. And if you are “lucky” enough to sit in a cube, good luck with that! Interestingly, 60 minutes profiled Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. Not only does he not utilize a private office, but he shares a table with a couple of other guys! He must like being interrupted. Not that your arguments don’t make sense, they do. But unless you run the show, these kinds of changes don’t get any traction. (One reason why I left large scale corp. America and run my own show).

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Rick Phillips April 21, 2011 at 11:21 am

Kevin:
Much of your conversation has merit but I have seen many “Leaders” who hide behind closed doors, leaving team members to seldom share ideas or questions, they do little more than gossip about what the boss is doing back there.
I encourage “leaders” to always close doors when having a conversation with an employee or team member. Employees need to know that everytime they have a conversation with the boss, the conversation is private. They also need to know that it’s not unusual for the door to be closed when the boss is talking to an employee…even when the employee initiates the conversation. This policy creates an atmosphere where people feel they can share bad news, theft, fraud etc.
Thanks for a stimulating article
Rick Phillips

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Connie McKnight May 17, 2011 at 10:15 am

Kevin,
I like the concept, but hate the name for the policy, although it was perfect for the post – it certainly got my attention.

A total open door policy is impossible to manage as you explained so well. Things don’t have to be so black and white. If there are certain times during the day that you are less productive, these could be set aside for drop-ins. I tried having such a rigit schedule, and it didn’t allow for spontaneity. Some of the most creative ideas are creative at the spur of the moment.

Connie

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Celeste Paradise May 31, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I would add to this that it helps to reduce the amount of disruption caused by people within the organization who try to maintain “visibility” for political reasons. Senior leaders are often inundated with requests, hallway meetings, and interruptions by people who are only doing so to gain attention from a leader within their organization. The content is typically nonsense, not urgent, and merely a distraction from work that needs to be achieved. Having a closed door policy discourages this behavior from the beginning.

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Rzewenski May 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Hello,
Thanks for this article !
But the door it is not alone. For example in France they are openspace in Orange Compagnies and it is bad for productivity too …
If you want to translate this article in french i’m here !

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