When Cultures Clash: Open Door Policy vs. Information Overload

Posted on October 29, 2014 · Posted in Organizational Solutions

The causes of Information Overload are always tightly intertwined with organizational culture, so it is small wonder that solving the first requires messing with the second… and there are times when my work to help organizations mitigate information overload runs into apparent conflicts with existing cultural values. When that happens, we must tread carefully!

One such case is the contradiction with the Open Door policy that is quite common in progressive organizations in the western world.

The conflict

Open door

The basic idea of Open Door is that managers are available to their subordinates whenever the latter feel they have something to discuss. This is a commendable policy: I’ve seen its absence in organizations where you must always go through channels, and I’ve seen how this can have a really chilling effect on effectiveness, on motivation, and on the success of the business.

The problem is that a key component of information overload is Interruptions, the endless stream of extraneous stimuli that force people to stop what they’re doing and start doing something different (every 3 minutes on average, as research has shown). There are many solutions to interruptions – they fill an entire chapter in my Definitive Guide to IO solutions – and although they vary in their approach they all ultimately involve isolating the knowledge worker. Some go as far as providing “privacy rooms” or other “No interruption zones” where people can seek refuge to do concentrated thinking work; others involve “Do not disturb” signs, door barriers and electronic signals. The most aggressive send managers away to remote retreats to do their thinking; others simply educate people to avoid interrupting people in specific “Quiet Time” periods. All of which has the unintended side effect of blocking that “Open door” – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively.

When Open Door is a basic value, this can become an issue!

How you can resolve this conflict

Clearly, the desired situation is to allow managers the quiet time required to perform key tasks involving thought and concentration (and, especially for managers, those requiring privacy, as when writing employee performance reviews) – without making them inaccessible. This may seem a contradiction, until you remember that there are many hours in the day, and they can be apportioned to these two different modes. One or two hours of isolation daily are all a manager can realistically hope for (and they will have a major positive impact); that leaves plenty of time to keep their door open. What is needed is a modified set of norms where Open Door has its honored place, but there is an additional understanding that managers have some right to keep their door closed in limited, clearly identified periods.

The challenge is to ensure that a subordinate wishing to talk to the boss doesn’t get discouraged (or disillusioned) should they find the manager unavailable. There are many ways to do this. Some organizations set specific times for the Open Door state; senior managers in particular may assign (and publicize) specific hours that they keep open to address any employee who may wish to talk to them. You might also use “Do not disturb” signage that explicitly states the person will be available later – as in “Please respect this sign, but feel free to pop in as soon as I take it off”. You may reword the open door policy to include the exception (“In our company any employee may approach any manager at any time. Note however that there are times when the manager needs privacy and will ask you to return at a later hour the same day”). The possibilities are many, and the one that will work best for your group will depend on its specific culture.

Some points you should keep in mind

  • The revised cultural expectations you set up can be only as good as the honesty of the managers involved. It is easy to declare an open door policy, and just as easy to ignore it. Employees will need to truly believe that your door is open – and that when it is not, you truly need the privacy but will indeed be open for them in a short while. As always, managers must “walk the talk”!
  • Education and communication are key to making the revised policy work. Use all the employee communication methods available to you – your HR group will know how to do this. It will be easier if the change is part of a comprehensive, branded information overload reduction program.
  • It will help if you clarify to employees that they, too, are entitled to uninterrupted “Quiet Time” slots. That way the managers won’t be perceived to be getting special treatment in this area.

If your company has already addressed this conflict, I’m very interested in learning what you did and what happened next. Please let me know!

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