This week, I touch on a sensitive topic. It’s one that could be uncomfortable based on your circumstances. How many times have you had the recognition that you need to set limits or establish boundaries, yet have NO idea where or how to start? I came across a blog post on the Crisis Prevention Institute website that attempts to break down the process and make it easier to find a starting place.
If You Feel A Desperate Need For Boundaries, You Might Also Feel Fear About Setting Them
Look, I feel your pain. First, if you are feeling a desperate need to set boundaries, you are also likely feeling an equal number of concerns about what happens if it goes wrong. Whether you are talking about a boss, a team member, a direct report, a friend, a spouse, or a child, there are real consequences that can result because you set limits or boundaries to acceptable behavior.
Set Effective Limits And Communicate Them
Second, this is one of the greatest challenges in leadership: setting effective limits. This may or may not surprise you, but setting limits actually makes people feel safe. Knowing the limit introduces the power of choice. Who doesn’t want to feel empowered to determine their outcome?
Be Honest With Yourself
You know that great leaders communicate their expectations. There’s no guessing about where you are coming from. It requires transparency and honesty which results from diligent effort over time…and making your share of mistakes.
Being able to check yourself and understand the motivations for your expectations while being open and accepting of feedback that challenges your assumptions is all part of the process.
#1 – Your Limit Is Not An Ultimatum
If your only objective is to make life easier for you, that might not be a good reason to place an expectation on others. Think about it this way: can you see it from the other person’s perspective? Do they feel your kindness and concern in your approach? Would they say that your intent is to help him or her to succeed?
Or, is this coming across as frustrating, aggravating or demanding? It’s always a balance between meeting the needs of the day and not being overbearing or unreasonable. The goal is to be both respectful and flexible while making sure the objective is met.
Maybe you can hear the difference between these two ways of saying the same thing:
“Our culture, the way we work, demonstrates respect for our customers and for our team members. One way we do this is making sure we show up for our shift ready to go and fit for duty.”
That sounds quite a bit different from this:
“If you are late, you will be fired.”
If you are like me, you might immediately shift to the team member who is constantly late. Note: this requires a different conversation and you will have to have it! However, by being clear that respect and consideration for team members and customers is demonstrated by showing up on time, you have set the stage for a conversation.
That might not be very complicated when the hearts and minds of your team are engaged and everyone is pulling the same direction. It can feel intimidating when you know that ANY requirement is going to be viewed as unreasonable or interpreted as just another example of your methodical and over-the-top way of controlling others.
Whether true or not, there are instances where this is how the other person(s) is going to feel. To say it’s unreasonable for them to feel this way doesn’t change their feeling. Certainly denying that control is your motivation isn’t going to make everything better and will likely have the opposite impact of invalidating their very real feeling.
Engage, Don’t Alienate
So how do you set limits in a way that engages versus alienates? The last thing you want is to destroy the very chemistry you are working to build. Unsurprisingly, choosing your words carefully and how you communicate any expectation is going to be essential to a successful outcome. But that might also be the most important place to start, that is deciding what a successful outcome is going to be.
Cooperation, Not Compliance
This was a key point in the post from Crisis Prevention: aim for cooperation, not compliance! The truth of the matter is this: just because you set a limit doesn’t mean it won’t be violated. If you have set it and communicated it, there should not be a lack of clarity when that individual willingly chose to push or overstep the limit. There is often a form of consequence when a limit has been exceeded and that person should be able to use that information to make an appropriate choice.
#2 The Purpose Of Limits Is To Teach
Consider this when setting a limit. Maybe you have a team member who regularly comes to you at the last minute for your assistance to meet a deadline. I mean end-of-day, last minute. It’s predictable and you can see it happening a mile away.
By establishing your willingness to assist a week before the deadline, your intention is to teach your coworker that planning to assist around your current obligations is feasible. When they come to you at the last minute, your refusal to put aside other deadlines or personal obligations in favor of supporting them isn’t punishment. It’s reaffirming that you have previous commitments that aren’t movable last minute. Obviously, there are exceptions, but remember, this is routine for your coworker – not a one-time event.
You aren’t “teaching them a lesson”; rather, you are identifying that planned assistance is possible. Procrastination that delays until the last possible moment isn’t an acceptable way of working together.
Here’s the weird part: by offering a choice (approaching you earlier rather than later for help), you have empowered them. Huh? I know – it sounds strange, but by choosing to delay, they have chosen not to get help from you. Interesting isn’t it?!
#3 Setting Limits Is About Listening
Here’s another semi-strange one: taking the time to really listen will help you better understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Do you know what’s important to the other person? Have you listened long enough to understand it?
Here’s a great example of listening. You have a team member who has a tendency to react with strong emotion when challenging the quality of their performance. You’ve seen how well they performed in the past but recently, it’s gotten worse. Any time you raise it, it seems to end with little or no progress and worsening attitude towards you and the team.
Maybe it’s time instead to focus not on their performance, but on them! What if the reason the performance has dropped off is that their spouse lost a job and in the interim, they have taken on a side gig that reduced their sleep by four hours per night? Does it resolve the issue? No. You still have a requirement about how their job is to be performed.
I’m not advocating that this is the solution, but what if you could offer them an additional hour of sleep in exchange for reducing their lunch from one hour to 30 mins? It’s possible that reducing their daily work schedule by 30 minutes could more than make up for the lagging performance. By listening, you’ll learn more about what’s important to them, and that will help you set more meaningful limits.
So I said I would offer you some ideas about where to start.
Five Things To Consider When Setting Limits
- Explain which behavior is inappropriate
- Take the time to explain why it is inappropriate
- Give reasonable choices with consequences
- Allow time to make a decision
- Be prepared to enforce the consequences
If you have time, and if you are faced with setting limits for someone you work or live with, then do yourself a favor and take a moment to check out the Crisis Prevention Institute website below for more ideas on ways to set limits.
Remember, you are doing this to create an environment that is conducive to teamwork. Whether at home, at work, or in the community, respect yourself and your needs. Do it for others, and expect them to do it for you.
You are empowering by offering others a choice. They choose the outcome and you are helping them to make the best choice possible.
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
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