Slamming the Open-Door Policy

Questions from the Real World:  January, 2011

I have an open-door policy, but I get interrupted so much, I often can’t get my work done.  I’m not a great multi-tasker; I don’t do my best work if I can’t focus on a task uninterrupted.  What suggestions would you have?                        ~Anonymous, Chicago, IL

 Jim’s response

Why is so much value put on the “open door policy” in today’s organizations? Shouldn’t we question this old saw and ask ourselves what it really means?               

The open door is often a device that feeds the manager’s ego and forces tactical dependency on the manager for frontline employees.               

Jim Hessler, Path Forward Founder

There are many bad reasons for the “open door.”               

  • You ‘ve hired the wrong people or developed them poorly, and they can’t do their work without constant access to your knowledge and experience.
  • You’ve done a lousy job establishing repeatable processes that guide decision-making to the proper level of the organization.
  • You have a huge ego need to be the “answer dude” and you actually like being the sweaty draft horse of your organization.
  • You don’t proactively engage with your employees on their turf and therefore they are forced onto yours to have interaction with you.
  • You never close your door—in part because the hard work of thinking and planning that’s typically done in a closed office doesn’t appeal to you.
  • You are fundamentally disorganized and behind schedule so that people are having to “track down” work in your office.


I get a little tired of hearing from people who are wearing the hair shirt of the open door policy. “My people NEED me so much!” This isn’t something to be proud of.               

Get out of this routine. Drive work down the hierarchy with a proper set of instructions and training. Give people the authority and guidelines they need to think and act for themselves. If you’re too short-staffed to get the work done without the managers being in the tactical mix, then advocate for additional staff and spell out the bottom-line benefits of doing so. Get organized! And yes, close your lousy door once in a while! It doesn’t make you a bad person.               

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Steve’s response

Steve Motenko,  Partner

Close your dang door.  At least sometimes.       

The “open-door policy” stems from noble intentions.  You want to be accessible to your co-workers.  You want communication to flow freely.  You don’t want to be perceived as aloof, arrogant, or just too important to bother.             

And the open-door policy has its limits.  Seems like you’ve banged up against them.  An always open door signifies an absence of boundaries.  You wouldn’t want your employees to surrender all their boundaries. You shouldn’t either.
Here are a few tips that have worked well for many of my executive coaching clients:      
  •  When you’re working on a deadline or just need to focus, uninterrupted, for a while:
    • Close your door. Let your co-workers know in advance what the closed door means – that you are not to be bothered unless it’s an emergency.
    • If you don’t have a door, put a sign up in a prominent place:  “I need to focus right now.  Is it urgent?” or words to that effect.  
    • Turn off the “pinging” feature of your email that alerts you to every incoming.  And if the temptation is still too strong, close your email program.  In most cases (and you know if  you’re an exception), they can all wait a couple hours before you respond. 
    • Don’t answer your phone.  No, really – don’t answer your phone.  You ignore it when you’re in a meeting, don’t you?  Sometimes you have to schedule meetings with yourself – and time that you need to focus directly on your own project ought to be as sacrosanct as time dedicated to a co-worker or customer.  The caller can wait awhile.  If you need to, check your messages after each call, but don’t respond unless it’s urgent. 
  •  Carve out a weekly block of time or three – preferably the same block(s) of time – that everyone knows is your reflection/planning/project time.  During a staff meeting, or in one-on-ones, explain the importance of this time to you, as well as your requests around interruptions. 

If you’re a manager, maybe you’ve been promoted because of your ability to “git ‘er done.”  The temptation to play to that strength is so strong – and so antithetical to your long-term success as a leader.  The leader’s your job is to take the longer-term view.  This means taking the time to focus on visioning, planning, evaluating, reflecting.  These complex cognitive tasks – the kind required of leaders – take time.  Give them the time they deserve.  Respect yourself and your leadership potential.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

One thought on "Slamming the Open-Door Policy"

  1. Monalynn says:

    So true! So true! The Open Door Policy should be changed to the I’ll be glad to chat when you make an appointment door. So much more is accomplished when the door is closed and the creative energy flows uninterrupted. Bottom line—you benefit, your employees benefit, your company benefits! It’s a WIN-WIN-WIN type situation!

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