Open Door Or Closed? Balancing Approachability Against Authority

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” — Leonardo da Vinci.

“Nothing traps you in the urgency of the moment like availability.” — Sam Raimer, Baptist pastor and blogger.

Open Door Or Closed? Balancing Approachability Against Authority by Laura Stack #productivityAnyone in a leadership position, from an office manager to a church pastor, has to carefully balance authority with approachability. Which should take precedence, if either? At one time, the answer was simple: authority was always preferable. But the workplace has changed radically in the last half century, and management experts have been debating the concept of the “open door policy” for decades. Some advocate its adoption on a wide scale, while others insist it can utterly destroy a leader’s productivity. Given the wide latitude here, where should you strike the balance? In general, here are some guidelines that work for me:

1. Be friendly with your team members, but not friends. The definition of “manager” has changed in recent years, driven by technology and cultural evolution. Nowadays, the most effective strategy is outline a general direction and hand execution over to your team members and let them get on with it. No longer do you dictate from on high, binding your team with tight restrictions and rules—that simply won’t work anymore. You’re better off working cooperatively with your team, providing a guiding vision while facilitating their success and cheering them on. Today, openness is necessary in order to maximize communication and productivity.

However, when you become friends with your team members, you cross a tenuous line—because there may come a day when you have to censure or even fire them. True friendship will inevitably effect such decisions, compromising your judgment, productivity, and worse, your integrity. I’ve seen people who were promoted to middle management positions, who later had a tendency to “go easy” on friends when handing out tasks. Don’t let your team members be too familiar with you. They may lose respect for your authority, and you may give way to favoritism.

2. Learn the difference between availability and accessibility. Being completely available can tie you down and make you a less effective leader. If you’re available, that means you have to stay where someone can find you at all times. You’ll be interrupted all day long, and you’ll have to do your “real work” when everyone leaves at 5:00. I recall one of the teaching assistants in graduate school, whose professors expected him to remain completely available to them and/or their students whenever he wasn’t in class. He couldn’t leave his office most of the day, and his thesis research suffered until he quit the position to focus on it full time. Instead, be accessible, not fully available. Don’t keep your door closed all day. Encourage team members to schedule appointments with you, not just “pop in.” Let them know when you’re available for coaching. Schedule regular meetings with key players, so they don’t feel the need to interrupt you with questions. Being accessible will make sure you don’t sit around waiting for people to come to you. Work them around your schedule, not the other way around.

3. Filter your personal access. You may find you get too many requests for your time once you achieve a certain level of management or during busy times of the year. If so, you may need to adopt a filtering system to limit your access. This may take the form of what I call “a dragon at the gate,” a tough executive assistant who can handle most requests and pass the rest on to you directly. If you’ve reached the C-suite, you may need more than one person to fill this role.

4. Set office hours. Establish particular hours during the week when anyone can approach you with questions or problems. For example, Tuesday-Thursday, 1-3 PM. This limits your need to stay in one place while still making yourself available. You can also leverage the concept of reverse office hours—times when you never make yourself available so you can get work done.

A Fine Equilibrium

Most people respect authority, and respond positively and productively to it. However, the modern concept of teamwork requires you not just to captain the team, but to be an active part of it as well. Even a head football coach is out there on the sidelines, guiding plays and making sure his players stay safe. The business world being what it is, you can’t just move your people around like chess pieces; but then too, you can’t be “one of the gang” either. How do you best balance your authority with approachability?



  1. Connie Harris says:

    This is a real balance, Laura. I can relate one strategy I used when my office was on a very busy corridor and was not in a suite. If my door was wide-open, come on in; partially closed, you had three minutes for a standing (not seated) conversation; closed equaled no admittance unless it was a huge gift or someone was in jeopardy!

    It actually worked and encouraged me to have my door wide open more than I might have initially.

    Thanks for helping us be more productive!

    • tppadmin says:

      I love your system Connie! Sounds like your keys to success were that you (a) picked a signal (b) communicated it specifically to employees, and (c) implemented it consistently. When there are unwritten ground rules, people walk around on eggshells, not knowing if it’s okay to talk with you right now or not. You’ve created a solution that benefitted them and ultimately ended up benefitting you and your relationships. Great input—thanks for sharing!

  2. Anne Johnston says:

    What suggestions are there for a manager in a “virtual office”, that is, one who works from home but manages team members across the country, some also work at home, others inma traditional office setting? Most communication is done via teleconferencing and personal phone calls, and managing the email and IMs could become a fulltime job if allowed to disrupt the day!