Boundaries can be tricky territory in any arena, and leadership is no exception. As an employee, you can use straight-forward boundaries to teach others how frequently you’ll work afterhours or whether you’ll be answering emails over the weekend.

As a leader, however, boundaries mark the lines of what you will allow and what you aim to create. Your decisions and your ability and dedication to a particular set of ideas tells everyone watching you what is important in this ecosystem.

If you say nothing when a manager berates a staff member, you’re allowing for that behavior. When you step in and offer an alternative, your boundary creates a new dynamic.

There’s a lot riding on the boundaries leaders chose to keep and the way they make those lines visible to the whole team. Check out our framework below on identifying the boundaries that mean the most to you and your work and how to talk about them with those you lead.

Identifying Boundaries

Deciding what you want to create or allow as a leader can be a Herculean undertaking. Rather than get mired in the details, set up a 15 minute appointment with yourself and make a rapid-fire brainstorm list of all the boundaries you want to be respected in your department or workgroup. Don’t edit and don’t overthink. Just write down the boundaries you see that really work and note where your direct reports are overstepping in ways that damage the trust or effectiveness of your work team.

Look at your list and give those boundaries that are solidly in place a score of “3”. Give every boundary that seems to exist but isn’t always honored a “2.” Finally, put a “1” next to those new boundaries that you’d like to implement. Now choose one item from each rating and go on to the next step.

Implementing Boundaries

Take a look at your most important, most well-respected boundary – that item you marked with a “3.” Set the stage by demonstrating your appreciation for the team’s respect of that boundary. In a meeting or other public setting, briefly explain why the boundary is important and how it helps support the functionality of the group.

A few days later, introduce your “2” level boundary. Connect this limit to the previous boundary.  This might sound like, “A few days ago, we talked about the way you all are supporting the team by respecting boundary X. I want to look at another way we can all work together to keep improving our effectiveness.” Then introduce the boundary you labeled “2” by talking about how respecting that boundary helps the group. Give specific examples and invite everyone to make the team even better by consistently respecting that boundary.

Watch the team’s progress over a few days or weeks and call out compliance whenever you see it and request cooperation wherever it may be missing. Give your team the time to adopt and internalize the second level boundary before moving on to a “1”.

When you’re confident they’ve mastered the “2” boundary, use the same bridging technique to introduce a “1” boundary. Link it to their previous successes and illustrate the positive impact the new boundary can have on the whole team. Rinse and repeat as needed to intentionally build the boundaries that support your team and their work.

Whatever your industry, establishing boundaries requires you to tell others what your limits are and provide as much information as you think they need to willingly comply with your wishes. Time and consistent, positive reinforcement, can help you make dynamic cultural changes like implementing new boundaries that will benefit your entire workgroup.

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson


Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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