Boundaries define the playing field for most sports.
Fences provide boundaries for homes and farms.
Walls keep people in, or out.
These are obvious and clear boundaries. There are others that while we know they exist, there isn’t a physical line of demarcation.
The boundaries in our professional and organizational lives are like those examples – some are clear, others, not so much. It is my goal here to give you reasons why boundaries are needed, and why making them clear and obvious is a far better approach to leading and running an organization (and the relationships inside it).
Clear boundaries improve focus and productivity. Once we know where we can go and what we can do, it allows us to focus on those things and not worry about overstepping bounds, making mistakes or doing someone else’s job.
Clear boundaries improve safety and compliance. In most organizations there are safety and/or compliance concerns. When everyone knows what those rules are and what is needed in a given role or task, people can operate more safely and not take actions that might lead to dangerous unintended consequences.
Clear boundaries allow trust to grow. When you and I know what you want me to deliver, I am better able to deliver. And when I do, trust goes up. Plus, if, as a leader you provide me a boundary that is bigger or more expansive than I expected, it show me that you trust I can handle those tasks, roles and decisions – you showing me that trust, provides a further chance to build trust between us.
Clear boundaries create defined expectations. This is perhaps the biggest underlying power of all. Until I know what is expected of me, how can I possibly deliver on these expectations? Setting boundaries on what I am and am not responsible for allows me to know what success looks like and then deliver that success.
Clear boundaries allow for empowerment. Too many leaders think empowerment is granted – but that is only half correct. Empowerment must be given to the leader, but must be understood and accepted by others. This can’t happen without clear boundaries defining what people are being empowered to do (or not do).
Clear boundaries promote growth and development. Once I know what is inside my realm of influence, my stress, anxiety and worry will decrease, and I am able to focus on successfully doing my work. Boundaries give me more opportunity to develop and help me determine where I might focus my efforts on growth and improvement.
Before I go, let me say something about the word “clear”. I purposefully used it in each of the items above, because just like if the boundaries on the ball field are missing or obscured, if the boundaries aren’t clear or agreed to, their power and usefulness is drastically diminished.
So let me be clear . . . by “clear boundaries” I mean they are:
- Defined by everyone involved
- Mutually agreed to
- Mutually understood
- Reviewed regularly
- Managed and maintained
At the end of the day, boundaries are less about defining what we can’t do and more about what we can do. When you view them that way and keep that in mind, boundaries really can become a tool that people will welcome and that will allow them to be more successful in their work.