How to Manage Boundaries in the Workplace


Dr. Henry Cloud talks leadership and boundaries.

Can you name some leaders who don’t set boundaries in their organizations and the issues they have as a result?

I do not name leaders that I work with, but I could give you many examples of leaders who do not set boundaries and the kinds of issues they have as result. The kinds of issues they run into fall into a few categories: lack of clarity and direction so that talent can be properly engaged and focused; confusion in the ranks; toxic cultures that demotivate people and stifle their performance because the culture causes their brains to shut down; lack of strong company identity and cohesive culture that leads to high performance; disconnection and fragmentation among the departments or business units; lots of activity but poor results; organizational pessimism and powerlessness; lack of accountability; lack of high performance teams; trust breakdowns; and loss of respect and trust in leadership.

What types of boundaries should leaders create and how do you communicate them to co-workers?

There are several important types of boundaries that leaders must set:

1. Boundaries that focus attention on what is crucial and inhibit distractions from everything non-crucial, while keeping the crucial ongoing and current.

2. Boundaries that build a positive emotional climate that leads to high performance brain functioning.

3. Boundaries that keep people connected to each other and inhibit fragmentation, compartmentalization and isolation of people, teams, departments, or business units.

4. Boundaries that steward the dominate thinking paradigms that rule the organization, keeping the dominate thinking optimistic and proactive as opposed to pessimistic and powerless. No negative or victim thinking patterns allowed to take root.

5. Boundaries that align people with the behaviors that they can actually control and that specifically lead to results, empowering them to do the activities that actually “move the needle” of measurable results, as opposed to focusing on what they cannot control and/or is not directly related to real results. Aligning them with the true drivers of measurable results.

6. Boundaries that structure teams around well-defined purposes with values and behaviors which lead to high performance through defined roles, activities, and mutual accountability, along with the ability to diagnose, correct and fix what is not working quickly.

7. Boundaries on themselves that keep them from being a closed system, missing and repeating patterns, not getting honest feedback, falling into problematic thinking patterns, leading out of fear, avoiding necessary organizational change, not quarantining weaknesses, and losing control of their time and energy.

What happens when a co-worker oversteps your boundaries and does something that upsets you? How should you respond to them?

This is a great example of when a team has a vacuum of leadership boundaries. The best thing to do would be to use the “symptom” as an opportunity to talk about some values and behaviors that the entire team could covenant together to implement in situations like this one, and then they would know what to do. For example, the value might be “Honest Conflict Resolution” with some agreed upon behaviors that would bring that to fruition, such as “when we have an issue to resolve with someone, we go to them directly and seek resolution. We receive and listen when someone brings an issue to us. We always seek an answer that is good for both.” That kind of value before hand, with these specific behaviors, would lead someone to know what to do, not only in that situation but others as well.

If you’re managing a team that is completely dysfunctional, how do you go about setting things straight?

Most teams that are “completely dysfunctional” have not ever set down and really defined for themselves what their agreed upon shared purpose is, what their specific shared goals are, what their shared team values, norms and behaviors will be that will make those happen, what their agreed upon roles will be to accomplish those goals, and what their mutual accountability practices will be to correct and fix things. So, the answer is not to argue about it in each specific instance, but to come together and agree on what they are trying to build together, establish some norms that will get them there, and then live those out.

What are your top three tips for business leaders?

1. Be an “open system.” Open yourself to outside feedback, input, coaching, information, and energy. Closed systems run down and get more chaotic over time. Always get better by being “open” to outside energy and templates of better ways to function.

2. Lead in ways that people’s brains can follow. Do not confuse them with creating an ADD organization or team. Attend to what is relevant, inhibit everything else from becoming a distraction, and keep it in their “working memory,” i.e. keep it current and in front of them at all times.

3. Create a culture that has “heat,” with high performance standards and accountability, along with positive relational glue that keeps everyone supported and on the same team pushing and supporting each other towards great results that they all own together.

This article was published in Forbes Magazine.

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