What Do Office Doorways Say About Leadership?

by Jennifer Miller on December 1, 2011

in Leadership

What do your organization’s workplace doorways signal to employees? Whether it’s the front door, the employee entrance, or the boss’s cubicle doorway, have you ever considered what happens in employees’ minds when they pass over their work threshold?

As a leader, you probably haven’t given it much thought, but consider this recently reported brain research* published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: people become forgetful when they pass through doorways.

Psychologist Dr. Gabriel Radvansky from the University of Notre Dame conducted memory research aimed at uncovering why humans often forget what they were doing when moving from one room to another. It turns out that passing through a doorway may somehow be involved in how our brain files away information. Dr. Radvansky theorizes that the door acts as an “event boundary” that may cause us to “lose our thought’ after we pass through the door.


Could that describe the phenomenon of perfectly responsible adults who walk through their workplace doorway and “forget” how to behave maturely? You know who I’m talking about—outside of work these folks hold positions of responsibility and authority: parent, committee chairperson, elder in their house of worship. But then, they walk through their office door and “POOF!” they seemingly have forgotten their adult capacities back at home. Is the brain’s storage system the culprit?

Of course, I’m taking liberties with this research. It’s not that people have forgotten how to behave like adults; it’s that they don’t believe they will be supported in their endeavors to be a grown-up. I firmly believe that the work environment shapes employee behavior. As Geary Rummler and Alan Brache wrote in their book, Improving Performance, “if you put a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.” And guess what? People in positions of leadership are in the best position to create a welcoming “system” that allows people to bring their full adult-ness to work.

This idea of an “event boundary” and the way employees perceive their world can be a useful reminder to those in management. Even though employees don’t really “forget” how to be responsible people when they cross their workplace entry, that door does signal something to them.

Give it some thought: What does your office door signal to your employees?


*Thanks to science writer Annie Murphy Paul on Twitter for tweeting this article.


photo credit: istockphoto.com

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