Is Your Open Door Policy Killing You?

A common concern I hear from my executive clients is that they have great difficulty with strategy time.  The issue usually presents itself like this: “I can’t find the time to think when I’m constantly being interrupted.”  OK, why are you constantly being interrupted?  The response is usually a form of, “we have an Open Door Policy, so I have to be available to everyone.”
That gets me all curious about what their Open Door policy actually says. What is the intent of the policy?  Is it to let all employees know that, if they unsatisfied with how they are being treated, they can take their concern up the chain of command without concern for reprisal (in other words, that ‘all doors are open’ to them)?  OR does it say, “You can walk into anyone’s office, at any time, regardless of your issue, and interrupt what that person is doing?” Does the policy say, “by virtue of this policy, YOU can determine the priorities and schedule of the president of the company, because ‘the policy says’ their door must – literally – be open at all times?”
Usually, the first response I get is a puzzled look.  The latter definition is what a LOT of people think Open Door Policy means.
“Here is an opportunity,” I tell my client, “to regain control of your time.”
Thinking – which is a legitimate and important responsibility of a top leader – requires some stretches of uninterrupted time.  And Conversation – which is also a legitimate and important responsibility of a leader – needs to occur.  But the two activities are often mutually exclusive.  So, just as you schedule meetings, you should schedule time to think, strategize, design, and plan.”
Open door policy or not, you are allowed to close your door when you are trying to concentrate or work on what they pay you to do – think about the future.  You can manage your ‘accessibility’ – which is the real issue in an open door policy – by declaring specific hours of operation.  For instance, if your best thinking/strategizing time is in the morning, you might say, “I am not available for meetings before 10:30 AM.”  Or you can say, “I have set aside from 1 until 3 every day for unscheduled meetings.  My door is wide open between those hours.”
Finally, you must enforce the boundaries you define. If your Closed Door time is prior to 10:30, and Suzie sticks her head in because she wants to talk to you about her boss, you need to say, “Suzie, now’s not a good time, as I’m in the middle of __X__.  I’m happy to speak with you at 11 today. Will that work for you?”  And unless it’s an emergency, she’ll likely say, Yes.  You both win – she gets access, and you get to operate as a strategic-thinking leader.  And nobody, including you, has to live in constant frustration.
Remember: Leadership is not about a title.  Anyone can be a leader who can effectively manage their own priorities by learning to Just Say No in a way that allows them to complete their Thinking work, yet still allows time for Conversation with others.
P.S. this tip works if you’re a parent, as well, by the way.  Or a co-worker.  Or even if you are on a deadline and your boss stops by – Just Say No does not mean you can’t talk… it just means that you say, I have this Boundary, and I ask that you honor that boundary just now.

2 thoughts on “Is Your Open Door Policy Killing You?”

  1. How can this work with email as well? They may not get thru the door but they can get into your office via emailing you scheduled meetings and events. Also voice mail. I try not to open my email or listen to any voice messages until I have the time to get in and hit my to do list first, otehrwies they plan and schedule my day and take me off track.
    Thanks for the info, love your website!
    Sandi Najda-Beck

  2. Sandi, you’ve already solved the problem, haven’t you? By managing the time you spend on email and vmail, or by restricting your own attention to those media, you have taken back control of your own time. You rock! Thanks for sharing this idea.


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