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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Why the Best Managers Know How to Shut Their Doors


The best bosses have an open-door policy—right? But, what exactly does that mean in practice? Does being a good manager mean that your team can come in, sit down, and “pick your brain” whenever they want?

That doesn’t sound very efficient—and that’s because it’s not. Availability requires lots of time and energy, two of your most valuable and finite resources. It’s critical to acknowledge whether the cost/benefit of giving so much to your employees is worth it. It’s possible your over-involvement isn’t just frustrating them, but it’s also keeping you from having time to think creatively and to handle tasks outside of overseeing others.

Luckily, there are four steps you can start implementing today to remedy this situation and get your management style back on track:

Step 1: Zero in on the Issue

It’s easy to say, “my team needs me,” and involve yourself in everyone’s work. It’s harder to step back and examine if you could afford to back off a bit.

Self-awareness starts with self-diagnosis. To discover if you’re too available, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do your employees scatter when you enter the break room?
  • Do you find yourself regularly working late and on weekends to get your work done?
  • Do you arrive in the morning to find a line of employees waiting at your door?

If you answered yes to any (or all) of these questions, you’re too available.

Step 2: Change Your Habits

Now that you know that both you and your employees could benefit from less engagement, set up boundaries by creating times when you’re in your office with the door closed. (Work in an open set-up? Block off time on your calendar as DND to create the same effect.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with scheduling time to do your work at your desk, give your employees the same courtesy. It’s true that you want to stay connected with your staff to maximize opportunities for recognizing work well done, providing critical feedback, and identifying areas of concern—but you don’t need to be in their faces 24/7.

One quick fix for this is to start scheduling weekly one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports. Make it clear this is a time to check in on any non-urgent issues as well as ask any questions—whether they’re about a current project or an upcoming company initiative. During this time, make sure to give the person your complete, undivided attention. Spending 15 to 30 minutes discussing work will get your much further than answering one-off questions throughout the day as you rush from one thing to another.

Step 3: Stay on Topic

Speaking of attention, too many managers who overstretch their availability compensate by not listening enough or with their full attention. (If their employees are always seeking them out, whenever else will they answer emails?). Limit these overkill conservations by being clear on what are (and aren’t) appropriate topics for your team.

For example, I once had an executive assistant who made it a habit of sharing deeply personal, non-work-related issues with me several times throughout the day. After a few days of this behavior, I made two changes. First, I set up that weekly one-on-one meeting to go over her projects and requested that she brought up anything related to her work (that wasn’t pressing) then. Second, I asked her to group her concerns and limit them to office-related topics in those meetings. It worked. She stopped coming to me with personal problems and we grew a stronger working relationship.

Now, that’s not to say you can never get off topic. You’re not a robot and neither is your team, and you should be fostering relationships with them beyond their to-do list. However, by setting clear boundaries on appropriate times to talk about their relationships, their dating lives, their Netflix queues, and their weekend plans, you can save yourself a lot of interruptions. It’s as simple as saying from 9 AM to noon, I’m working intently on meeting project deadlines, so please only reach out if it’s really important.

Step 4: Take Small Steps to Empower (and Retrain) Your Employees

For however long you’ve been in charge, you’d told your employees that they can pop in anytime during the workday, and email you anytime during off hours. You’re right to think that you can’t just send out an email that says “From now on, please only come to me with urgent questions and leave me alone to work the rest of the time.”

Instead, encourage change bit-by-bit. When your team comes to you with a question, instead of giving an immediate answer, inquire what he would do. If someone comes to you during time you’d put on the calendar as “DND” ask if she needs immediate assistance or can come back later.

When a conversation has taken a turn toward the personal, be straightforward about your need to meet a deadline or address another issue. If you want to continue the conversation, however, be sure to set up a time to talk about it, preferably in a non-work setting, such as over coffee or at lunch.

Open door policies and active listening are excellent management strategies. However, even the best practices taken to the extreme create inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Somewhere in the boss universe there exists a balance between just right involvement and overkill. But knowing that it’s OK and more productive to make time to shut your door—literally and figuratively—is a great start.