Behind Closed Doors

Over the weekend I ran into a former coworker, Greg. It’s been close to 20 years since we worked together, and we spent several minutes catching up. We talked about our current work situations, gave family updates, and laughed about the old times. We eventually parted ways, promising to do a better job of keeping in touch.

As I went about the rest of my day, I couldn’t help but recall some of the projects and conversations we’d had during our tenure at the same employer. There was one incident though that my mind kept going back to. It’s the same one that always pops up when I think of Greg. It was the time his office door went missing.

Our CEO at the time believed strongly that managers should be available whenever the team needed them. As a result, he expected that we follow an “open-door” policy. Whenever possible, the doors to our offices were to remain open. It served as a conspicuous signal that any employee was welcome to speak to any member of management at any time.

The problem was that Greg liked to close his door. He didn’t want to be interrupted while he was working. He said he needed to focus in order to do his best work. So while the rest of us kept our doors open most of the time, Greg’s was typically closed; much to the ire of our CEO. So one day, Greg came in to find the door to his office had been removed.

Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, says that closing your office door too often sends negative signals to the rest of the team. It shuts people out, making them feel excluded or unworthy of your attention. At a minimum, it communicates an unwillingness to engage with others. Closing the door is a silent social cue about your approachability.

Obviously, there are legitimate times when the door should to be closed.

  • You’re having a confidential conversation with another associate.
  • You need to take a private or sensitive phone call.
  • You need an hour or so to focus and finish up some time-sensitive work.

However, these should be rare occurrences. If your door is always closed, there may be larger issues that need to be addressed. Besides, think of what you’re missing.

  • You’re missing out on the chance to hear new ideas from other member of the team. When you shut the door, you communicate that you are not interested in anything outside the scope of your current focus.
  • You’re missing out on the opportunity to coach others. When you shut the door, others learn to seek out coworkers who are more receptive to sharing ideas.
  • You’re missing out on the little, seemingly inconsequential conversations that inevitably pop up from time to time throughout the day. When you shut the door, the team decides to move on without you.

Geher suggests using the door sparingly. Communicate the occasional desire to close your door for some quiet. Everyone understands the need for some distraction-free work. But let your default be an open door. Don’t watch through the glass as the team moves on without you.