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 10. 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.
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 also 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 provide feedback and 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.
—Kevin Eikenberry heads The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a professional speaking, training, and consulting team, whose clients include, among others, rural electric cooperatives and their regional associations. This article appeared originally on Eikenberry’s blog and is reprinted with permission, with style edits for this publication.