You have an unpublished science fiction novel in your head. You know the one — the “stories” about why other people’s behavior is “wrong” or “right” according to your rules. Think about this: Multiple stories have been written about you based on your actions or inaction. While these unvalidated stories may seem real in your head, they are fiction.
A perception gap exists between what you think (interpret) and see (behavior) when working with others. The assumptions behind these perceptions feed the “story” stirring miscommunication and misunderstanding. So what does this have to do with boundaries?
When you’re not transparent with colleagues about what you need and the impact their actions and behavior are having on you, productivity and communication decline. In fact, one report on workplace conflict highlights that it’s not skills causing these breakdowns; employee tension is the root of 60-80% of difficulties in organizations.
From CEOs to interns, communicating boundaries is an essential step to easing tension. Discussing what you need opens up the dialogue for what your colleagues need from you. Clarifying boundaries enables understanding by establishing limits, expectations, constraints, and deadlines.
Setting boundaries with co-workers
Start by outlining who does what, how teammates should work together, and which tools everyone will be using.
In one case study, an employee nicknamed “slacker” annoyed everyone because he used outdated tools and missed deadlines. A co-worker, realizing he took more time to complete assignments because he lacked research skills, advocated for the “slacker” to receive more on-the-job training. Soon, he was no longer the office pariah.
Also, get clarity on what “deadline” means. People view time differently. Reach an agreement with co-workers on specific dates and times to ease confusion about what “on time” means to everyone.
Setting boundaries with employees
As a people manager, define “surprises” and how you want to be informed.
At Microsoft, I sourced authors and vendors for leadership events. Our policy was to pay vendors for one day of international travel. At the last minute, one vendor said he wouldn’t show up without two travel days paid.
With 10 days until the event and no backup, I made the call to pay for both days — a good decision that went sour because I did not inform my manager. I was reprimanded for not looping him in on the situation and for being over budget. This surprise could have been mitigated had I informed him by outlining my decision and rationale.
Make it clear how, why, and when employees are to inform you of unexpected changes, no matter how minor they might seem at the time.
Setting boundaries with clients
Focus on what’s in scope with your clients. If you notice scope creep, call it out.
When clients ask for something beyond what is contracted for, let them know it’s outside of the contracted scope and likely to increase the budget. Then, ask whether this is still of interest to them. If you can’t provide what they need, offer alternatives so you’re still providing value.
My core client base is comprised of C-suite executives. A key business client asked me to coach 10 frontline managers. I was already working with the CEO, so saying yes to the frontline manager opportunity would have diluted my C-suite value. I chose to decline and hire a talented resource who would mirror my coaching methodology for lower levels in order to create consistency with the coaching process internally.
Success depends on clear, transparent communication about what is in and out of bounds. Don’t get sidelined by assumptions and surprises.
Mary Rezek is a disrupter known to ask the tough questions that incite awareness and inspire change. With more than 25 years of on-the-ground experience coaching executives from all over the globe, Mary enables leaders to find a new way forward and witness behavior change to gain better results. Through her offering as a global-executive and TED speaker coach, her insight and focus have earned her the nickname “Consigliere” from her clients. Known for saying “So what?” when coaching leaders, she transforms ordinary leaders to extraordinary storytellers. Read more of her work, and find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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