boundaries for leaders

Boundaries for leaders: Forget everything you thought you knew

For years, it’s been widely accepted that boundaries for leaders are a must.

When business leaders set healthy boundaries in the workplace, it can transform their ability to manage and motivate others. Boundaries can dramatically improve business performance, and they can create freedom for employees to be more creative and more productive. Boundaries are good things for leaders to put into place.

Now hit the brakes, and come to a screeching halt.

Just because setting boundaries is believed to be a good thing, that doesn’t mean you should do it – not until you and your employees are ready anyway.

You wouldn’t jump off a cliff because everyone else was doing it (your mother was right about this). And you wouldn’t think about getting into the cockpit of a Cessna and taking to the sky – not without flight training first.

Extreme examples, maybe. But in the same vein, you shouldn’t jump headlong into setting boundaries until you’ve trained and prepared. It’s important to make sure your organization is ready for boundaries before imposing them.

Why you may not be boundary ready

Have you spent time getting to know your employees? Do you understand how each of them works, what their skills are, what their expectations of you and the company are?

Proponents of scientific management have long stated the need for boundaries in the workplace. Define how and when people interface or you may not be able to get anything done. Set boundaries too soon, however, and you definitely won’t get anything done.

Why?

Because creating boundaries before you understand your people is a lot like asking them to touch a hot stove. They may do it for you, but only once (willingly), and the painful memory is going to stop them in their tracks when you make another request of them.

When you hear new managers pride themselves on “managing all of my people the same way,” you’ve been given a clue that they probably aren’t seasoned managers and aren’t ready to set boundaries for their employees. A unilateral approach to managing multiple employees may sound good in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality.

Tailor boundaries to fit your team

People are nuanced, and just like one size does not fit all, one set of boundaries won’t work for your team, either.

You have to spend time learning what motivates your people.

Some personalities, like engineers or software developers, may require stronger boundaries and a more rigid structure to be efficient and productive. They may appreciate a detailed, task-oriented process flow that checks all the boxes before moving a project from one stage to the next.

By contrast, other personalities, like creative types, generally require more freedom and flexibility to function at their most productive level.

It’s not feasible to create boundaries that force all your employees into one box and one way of doing things. The moment someone tries to break out of that box, you have dissension among the ranks – exactly what healthy boundaries are designed to prevent.

Effective boundaries depend on understanding the facets of the people you manage, and it can’t be said enough – know your employees before you try to set boundaries. Learn what makes them tick, and don’t assume that just because you set a boundary they’ll be eager and willing to comply.

But don’t be too eager to set boundaries

Boundaries should be the last piece of management strategy that you put into place, not the first.

If you create boundaries without due diligence, you risk ruining your workforce. When you don’t know the behaviors and the characteristics of the people you’re managing, setting arbitrary boundaries creates more problems than it solves.

For example, managers who are stubborn and set boundaries early on with a “my way or the highway” attitude often find that their entire team rebels against them. This creates a managerial nightmare. You don’t win allies with this approach, and everyone – even you – needs allies in the workplace.

Consider boundaries that may already exist

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about not having boundaries at all as you navigate your way through getting to know your team.

Some boundaries have probably already been put in place by the company, which affect all of your employees and their behavior at work. Codes and policies likely exist that spell out expectations on things like handling confidential materials, use of company electronics and equipment, manner of dress and expected conduct.

Your employees know they’re expected to adhere to those boundaries without direction from you as their manager. That’s a win for you and a great starting point when deciding what additional boundaries you may want to put into place.

So, make sure you take the time to really know your workforce and consider what organizational boundaries already exist before you step things up to the next level. Then, if additional boundaries are needed, you’ll be better able to craft ones that create the dynamic you want without drawing any lines in the sand.

Effective boundaries empower – not limit

Remember, you earn respect by setting boundaries that are carefully and thoughtfully designed to address both group dynamics and individual differences.

Effective boundaries can help make you a better leader and give your employees something to work toward. You want them to work at peak efficiency, but you’re not trying to turn your work environment into a labor camp of broken individuals.

Laws shouldn’t be broken, but rules can be bent. Decide in advance how far you’re willing to bend your boundaries when infractions occur. Even the best boundaries won’t be effective if you don’t model the behaviors you expect from your employees.

At the end of the day, boundaries should be used as a way to create an environment that people enjoy and that supports the accomplishment of company goals. All employees want to feel that their work is part of something greater and that their contribution is valued.

It’s up to you to give them boundaries that help them achieve that.

For additional insight on effective leadership, download our free e-book, The Insperity guide to leadership and management.

The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2
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