These days, if you don't have authenticity and openness in your business, well, quite frankly, you probably don't have much of a business. But the way you interact with the physical environment sends clear social cues about whether others can approach and positively engage with you. Within that, there's one single gesture that almost always strikes dread into the hearts of workers--closing the door.

Division and mystery kill the mood

Glenn Geher, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, explains why closed doors have this effect in his article for Psychology Today. He cites three big factors that might prompt someone to close the door at work:

  • bad news;
  • wanting to gossip; and
  • the desire to show some power.

All three of these instances are similarly negative in that they divide people into "us" versus "them" groups. When you deliver bad news, for example, the person you talk to becomes the outlier who has to cope while others can go about their day. And even if you aren't on a power trip, subordinates still can be jealous of your position and feel frustrated at their own status. Because a shut door sends this message of division, people become scared not just of the hardship that could be coming, but of not being included anymore. We feel like we're literally being shut out, discarded, or labeled as not good enough. All of a sudden, that shut door says we have to reevaluate our intelligence, skills, personality, decisions, behavior, everything, and that we're going to have to find a way to deal with some crap.

Such a simple gesture, yet it hits one of our most basic and primal anxieties.

Now add to this the fact that, when a door is closed, there's mystery. We might suspect what's taking place on the other side, but we can't know for sure in the moment. This lack of information, the simple fact we're missing pieces, makes us feel vulnerable and uneasy. We don't like that we can't make a plan and somehow defend ourselves.

Are there alternatives to the closed door?

Maybe. Positioning furniture just so in your space, for example, could make it harder for sound to travel out of the room. You also might be able to use a walking meeting or arrange for remote conference from home. Relatively simple issues also occasionally could be dealt with over secure online platforms like a chat room. Your building also might have a pleasant nook that, while not having a door, is separated from the main work area enough to provide sufficient privacy. It all depends heavily on the level of confidentiality involved and the trust you have that a conflict won't escalate. Keeping people and your business safe has to be your priority.

The bottom line is, accepting that you can't get rid of closed doors completely for practical reasons, you should strive to use them sparingly with full consciousness of how they can send a ripple of fear through your workforce. Try to communicate about what's upcoming on your agenda so that workers have a chance ahead of time to more logically process the need for privacy. Tell your team exactly when they'll get information and decisions, and be upfront and positive about goals and who's going to be involved. And if you just need to shut the door for some quiet, just say so. Be upbeat and emphasize how that's going to get you in the zone and improve your work. Everybody understands the need to tone down potential distractions, and they won't fault you for it.