Quick Question Quibble

A reader writes…

Hi Anita,

I’m a manager of a fairly small department and really make an effort to be approachable for my staff. In fact, I have established an “open door policy” and make a point of encouraging my colleagues to pop in with questions or stop by as needed. What I’ve noticed, however, is that staff members will stand in my doorway and say, “Can I ask you a quick question?” Then, next thing I know, we’re sitting together in a full-blown meeting (for which I’m totally unprepared and is taking me away from what I was doing). I appreciate my team and want to be there for them… but these impromptu meetings are really starting to frustrate me. Any suggestions?

Dear, “Impromptu,”

I can understand your frustration and can sense a feeling of resentment. Maintaining an “open door policy” with your employees is very commendable, but if it’s a practice you have established (and are encouraging), then you need to stick with it and be prepared for these types of situations. On the other hand, you can take the bull by the horns and reestablish some ground rules with your team to prevent this from happening further.

Now, am I suggesting you hang a “No Soliciting” sign on your office door?

But can you gracefully manage these “quick questions gone wild” while still maintaining a supportive and welcoming management style?

Here are some suggestions to consider:

1. The next time an employee comes to you with what appears to be a “quick question,” politely ask what it’s regarding.If, in fact, it’s something simple like, “Which project should I tackle first ‘X’ or ‘Y’?” you can likely give a quick response. If they say something like, “I wanted to share some ideas I had about ABC,” you can let them know you would love to discuss, but that this seems like more than a “quick question” and you’d want to dedicate your full attention to the subject.

    • Ask them to shoot you an email with their initial thoughts (so you can digest the information and clearly understand where you’re input is needed).
    • Let them know you will schedule a meeting with them to discuss in detail. Doing so will allow you time to prepare and shows your employee that you care enough about them and the matter at hand that you want to block ample time.

2. Address the problem with your entire team (as a group). Rather than singling out someone and potentially making them feel bad, openly share the situation – and the problem it’s creating –

with your entire group. Simply state something like, “You all know that I welcome your input and encourage you to bounce ideas off me, but I’m noticing that certain ‘quick questions’ aren’t actually ‘quick’! I want to give you my undivided attention, but I’m noticing I am unable to do that when I’m heads down on something and get interrupted. Moving forward, please send me a quick email that simply says, ‘Can we talk?’ or ‘Will you please call me when you have a few minutes?’ Giving some sort of head’s up will help tremendously, and I promise that I will set aside the time you need (and deserve!)”

I know, I know, that example is pretty scripted, but hopefully you get the idea.

3. Establish a regular meeting schedule. I’ve said this in previous posts, but it’s worth repeating. Managers MUST make a point of establishing a regular meeting with staff. Not just group or department pow-wows… I’m talking one-on-one. As long as the individuals on your team know they have time scheduled with you, they will get into the habit of tabling a lot of their “quick questions” and loose ends until their set meeting time arrives. For relatively small groups, you should try to have one-on-one meetings once a week.

The bottom line is, people won’t stop popping in if you keep inviting them to do so and actually meet with them for a long period of time. Your employees don’t realize this is bugging you! Be open and honest with your team and simply redefine your expectations (and needs) as the manager. In the end, you’ll feel less aggravated and your team will have a clearer understanding.

Hope this helps!

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alberteau Presuma
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 07:31:24

    I no have no coment.


  2. Bill
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 16:33:01

    I smiled when I read this: how often has it happened? I’d make it an extended policy to make all “quick questions” stand-up meetings – for everyone, including the manager (!). So the idea is that if you get tired of standing, the subject needs more attention, and should be specifically handled in a way more conducive to finding a good solution.


  3. Kim
    Feb 29, 2012 @ 19:27:28

    It’s interesting that this “manager” says they have an open-door policy when clearly they don’t. As both a past manager and current employee, open-door policies don’t really exist except when the employee is letting the boss know that they need to leave early for an appointment or take an emergency day off—something like that. OD policies aren’t for anything more than the daily minutia, and department or company policies are for staff meetings. This “manager” needs to learn his or her boundaries and establish what Open Door really means to him/her. That is, after all, your job as a Manager. Boundaries are important in an office environment, so don’t be afraid to establish them before you find yourself demoted!


  4. tom kelly
    Feb 29, 2012 @ 07:50:45

    absolutely. there are times when you as the manager, director or lead person has to have time to do what you are to do. while working for a large corporation, in manufacturing, you have all sorts of situations that arise, small fires shall we say that needed some attention, and the door was usually open. we had a standing policy, open door – walk right in; closed door – take a number, voice mail, not now unless it was an emergency. most people got the idea and respected the operation. another saying, ‘let me check my planner and i’ll see what i got” for those who walk in an say “got a minute?”


  5. Varena Lynn Smith
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 11:37:03

    May I also suggest, in addition to your comments above (good ones), that the manager ask, “Can we cover your question/issue in 5 minutes?” or “You have 5 minutes”. If they cannot address their concern in that time, ask to schedule a time with them later that day or as soon as possible. If they start on the discussion and it’s going over 5 minutes, the manager can graciously interrupt and mention “This is taking more than 5. Send me an e-mail with particulars for me to review (as in your #1) and we’ll schedule a time.”

    Also, the manager may need to set aside times that are “Do not disturb” times. Open door is great, but there may be times when the manager needs to focus without interruption. Having a simple sign (Quiet Hour – Do Not Disturb) to put on door & close it for an hour or two at various times in the week may be a great way to balance focused productivity with an open door policy.


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Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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