Why Every Leader Needs to Set (& Keep) Boundaries

Without boundaries, we lose ourselves.

Boundaries are like guideposts on the road. Each one we set for ourselves directs us in a specific direction. Just as a road sign says, “no U-turn” or “no detours,” our personal boundaries dictate what is – and is not – acceptable.

Admittedly, boundaries are tough. We want to do everything for everyone and never ask for help for ourselves.

We feel guilty saying no to a friend or colleague, believing it’s a sign of selfishness or weakness. And yet, without boundaries, we set ourselves up for saying ‘no’ – to our own highest good.

A lack of boundaries fosters an atmosphere of no respect.

“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.”

 -Henry Cloud

Setting the Right Tone in the Workplace

To be a truly impactful leader, setting boundaries is a must. Fostering relationships with employees is important, as it can cultivate a positive, productive work atmosphere. Yet Victor Lipman points out in Forbes that as a manager, to be friends with employees, boundaries are a necessity.

Lipman refers to a Harvard Business Review Management tip of the day:

“To Be Friends with Your Employees, Set Clear Boundaries”

While leader-employee friendships can be beneficial, a healthy distance should be maintained. When sensitive or personal topics arise, know what – and what not – to say.

Lipman notes that employee/leader friendships can be risky, such as when disciplinary action might need to be taken. It’s definitely a grey area that needs to be monitored, he explains.

Carol Sankar, writing in Inc., is more specific and offers suggestions for leaders to consider boundaries in the following areas:

  1. Time: No need to respond to every call or email. Not everything is a priority.
  2. Social Media: Does it feel like your social media feed is a never-ending stream of stress? Turn it off. Set specific times during the day to check social media – and stick to it.
  3. Self-care: make it a priority. Cutting back on your obligations can help lower stress levels while boosting your confidence as well. Say “yes” to self-care and “no” to all the things in your life that aren’t serving your highest good.
  4. Finances: Emphasize the best solution – not necessarily the best price or the “bottom line.”

The Consequences of Not Setting Boundaries

The guru of leadership coaching development and consulting, Dr. Henry Cloud, has written over 20 books on the subject of boundaries.

In an interview with Dr. Cloud, Dan Schawbel in Forbes discussed boundaries for leaders. Those who don’t set boundaries foster a laundry list of disagreeable results, including:

  • lack of a clear direction to engage and focus talents
  • confusion and an unmotivated workforce
  • stifled employee performance and morale

To promote boundaries, Dr. Cloud highlights critical boundaries he believes leaders must set.

A few these are:

  1. Boundaries that clearly focus on what is crucial and that block out distractions.
  2. Boundaries that lead to a positive emotional atmosphere – which leads to higher brain functioning.
  3. Boundaries that focus on keeping people connected – not isolated.

What Happens When a Boundary is Overstepped?

It happens. When it does, Cloud says it’s a clear example that a team has need of leadership boundaries. To resolve the issue, use it as an opportunity to talk with the entire team on behaviors to implement in such situations. When agreed upon behaviors are in place, resolution is more easily obtained.

And for any team – even completely dysfunctional ones –  defining a shared purpose, specific goals, outlining shared team behaviors and values and how to accomplish them are examples of boundaries that need to be in place.

Instead of arguing over each incident that occurs, Cloud explains, it is vital to come together and agree on goals that will achieve positive results – and stick to them.

Setting Boundaries Isn’t Just Important for Leadership

It can be hard for most of us to set boundaries.

But setting limits is an essential part of healthy living. In Psychology Today, Karen Kleiman offers tips for setting boundaries. They may take a bit of practice, but the benefits are worth it. A few of her suggestions to start putting boundaries in place:

  1. Saying no. We don’t need to justify the why – explanations are not always needed.
  2. Saying yes – when someone offers to help. It is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
  3. Showing gratitude when someone helps, which deepens our relationships in meaningful ways.
  4. Ask for help. Too many of us are afraid to speak up and ask for help when we need it.
  5. Be kind to ourselves and others; watch how this ripples out to create a rewarding work environment for all.

Cultivate an atmosphere of positivity, recognize others for their efforts, and encourage your team to do the same in their everyday activities. Dr. Cloud sums up the incredible power of encouragement:

“When you encourage someone, it literally changes their brain chemistry to be able to perform… sends fuel to the brain.”

By setting boundaries and keeping them, by practicing self-care and gratitude, and by encouraging our teams, we’re fostering a sense of positivity and respect.

And that’s a win-win atmosphere for everyone.

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