Open vs Closed Door Management

Open vs Closed Door Management

It’s almost a cliché in business; Managers say, “I have an open-door policy”. But what does this really mean and what are the implications of adopting this principle?

Years ago, when I was promoted to my first management role I took this “open door policy” advice at face value and quickly became frustrated with the number of interruptions. It seemed like my team members were constantly coming to ask me questions. I started arriving at work earlier and/or leaving later to take advantage of the quiet times when everyone was gone and I could be more productive. As you can imagine, working longer hours just to get my own work done was not a great recipe for a happy, balanced life.

Open-plan offices have made this conundrum even worse. How do you get into a productive state of “flow” when you are continuously being interrupted by what is going on around you?

(“Flow” is a highly productive mental state characterized by complete focus and absorption in the task at hand).

Some years ago I attended a keynote presentation in Las Vegas by Kinkos (now FedEx Office) founder Paul Orfalea. “What’s all this crap about open-door policies?” he said using coarse language that got the audience’s attention, “Close the f…ing door, or you’ll never get anything done!” Swearing aside, I suspected that because he is a billionaire and I’m not, he might know more than me about how to effectively manage time.

However, reflecting on what he said, I came to realize that open door vs. closed door is not an either/or choice. To succeed as a manager you need to do both.

Create 2 hours of uninterrupted time every day.

I have written an article dedicated to this topic: Leadership Productivity – The Magic 2 Hours.

In his book, “The Effective Executive” Peter Drucker advised that leaders need to reduce interruptions. Spending 15 minutes here and there working on your projects and tasks is NOT effective. Drucker suggested that to be more effective, leaders should carve out 2 hours of uninterrupted time every day. This 2-hour block is usually enough time to get the important things done. 

The trick is to block out a specific “closed-door” time window in your calendar; when you will not attend any meetings, not take any phone calls, not respond to emails or instant messages. You need to find a quiet place to work and train your team to not interrupt you during this time (barring an emergency).

Use this 2-hour block of time to work on your #1 Task for the day. Turn off your notifications, and discipline yourself to not check emails or messages during this time. Pick the most important item on your Task list, “The One Thing” and stick with it until it is done. Get in the flow and stay focused.

Once you have carved out 2 hours to get “The One Thing” done every day, you now set aside “open door” time windows. These are published “drop-in” times or “office hours” when your team members can come to discuss their key issues with you. Chances are because you have trained your people to know that you are not always available, they will take the time to think through the options before coming to you, and may have already resolved the issue they had.

Bite your tongue!

Beware the phenomena known as “reverse delegation.” This is where a team member gets in the habit of coming to you with every problem or opportunity and asks, “What do you think?” Your subconscious urge will be to provide your recommendation, or even make the decision for them. Your ego gets stroked because you get to play “the expert”. It feels good.

I call it “chasing the bone”. Someone throws you the bone, and you go galloping off to fetch it like a good dog. You bring it back with your tail wagging. You get to feel like a hero. Mission accomplished.

But if you are their manager or team leader, I suggest you are making a big mistake without realizing it. You unwittingly make the person dependent on you for problem-solving and decision-making. You are missing a valuable coaching opportunity to grow the capabilities of the person.

You have become the victim of “reverse delegation.” Your people won’t learn how to think through the issues and make decisions because it’s easier to come to you. And when people become dependent on you for decision-making, this makes you a bottleneck to company growth.

Here are my recommendations for how to “throw the bone” back to them, by using the GROW method to coach the person to think through the issues and solve the problem themselves.

Open-plan offices. 

There’s been a lot of passionate debate about the productivity/collaboration trade-offs with open-plan offices. Extroverts seem to revel in these highly social environments, whereas introverts (disclosure: I am one) find it draining. Proponents of open-plan offices tout the benefits of increased camaraderie, collaboration, and communication. Opponents complain about the noise, interruptions, and reduced productivity.

So who is right? Actually, both.

Open-plan offices are great for collaborative discussion and creative work, where each person feeds off and builds on the contribution of their co-workers. You could call this state of working “group flow”. Open-plan spaces are great for “discussing and planning the work”.

However when it comes to actually “doing the work”, you also need spaces with no interruptions and minimal background noise where people can work in peace and achieve a state of “individual flow” and optimal productivity.

Ideally, you want to create a workspace where both types of work environments can be accommodated: Open spaces for collaborative discussion, and private spaces for getting things done without interruption.

Regardless of whether you close a physical door, or block out space in your calendar to do your work uninterrupted, carving out 2 hours of uninterrupted time every day to work on “The One Thing” requires discipline, but as with most endeavors, discipline is a prerequisite for business execution success.


Until next time…