Technology-led advances in communication and connectivity are changing traditional organisational and leadership practice. Understanding and setting boundaries has now become a key factor for achieving goals.
Boundaries are part of life – they enable us, and they constrain us. Many self-help books and coaching guides stress the need for busy people to set boundaries and learn to say no. Often, the urge to say yes and take on too much is linked to low self-esteem and confidence. Researcher and author Dr Brene Brown writes, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves.” Her work explores shame and vulnerability, including a wonderful TED talk Brene Brown on vulnerability.
In our roles as leadership coaches with QUT Graduate School of Business, we invariably find that executive clients are in the process of navigating personal and professional boundaries of many kinds and in many ways. Part of the challenge for leaders is to set boundaries so that they can focus on their goals and intentions. Saying no is not easy in the turbulence and pressure of organisational life. Particularly given the survival need to foster strong relationships. The boundary mistake here is to present ‘no’ as part of a rigid wall that pushes others away. This isolates the individual and reduces their influence and capacity to achieve goals. The boundary art is to present ‘no’ in a way that invites further connections and offers possibilities for the relationship.
Ursula Le Guin, in her novel The Dispossessed, describes walls and boundaries as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘two-faced’. She observes that what is inside a wall and what is outside it depends upon which side of it you are on. This is a valuable perspective when you consider the many boundaries that exist in our lives. Is this wall as impenetrable as it seems? What is it really like on the other side?
Here are some boundaries we work with
- A leader might be working through a merger or acquisition in seeking to remove or change the nature of boundaries established through corporate histories.
- Another might be navigating a boundary change after a promotion to a new level in the company.
- Some are facing shifts of cultures as they move to new countries with expatriate roles.
Cultural boundaries can be invisible, intangible and nearly impossible to navigate.
Many coaching assignments help people to cross psychological boundaries. An example would be in achieving shifts in levels of consciousness in their growth through adult development stages.
For instance, a boundary might be as simple as the one that stops an executive from standing up and making a critical speech. Very commonly, the boundary is in the form of an ideological or policy difference where two sides have lined up with fixed positions where there is seemingly no room for negotiation.
What’s the nature of your boundary challenge?
We help people to understand the nature of the boundary challenges they confront. We also encourage them to take a positive mindset to setting and achieving their intentions. Leadership coaches work a lot with empathy; we encourage people to see the world through the eyes of others who are on the other side of whatever boundaries we are navigating. We also introduce ideas of paradoxical thinking – to encourage a position where contradictory views or positions might be held so that they complement each other. The boundary art here is to work with ambiguity and permeability, and steer away from black and white thinking and rigidity.
Another boundary mistake is to think that boundaries can simply be erased or drawn, or walls knocked down or built – and then all will be well. We can still hear echoes of Ronald Reagan’s words, “Tear down this wall Mr Gorbachev,” yet today’s geopolitical reality is perhaps not that much different.
The boundary art is to influence the core human systems
Corporate structures are much the same. You can restructure as many times as you like. But if you don’t uncover the cultural and systemic issues that are really at play, nothing much will really change. Relocations, new IT systems, re-brandings, and so on, are often ways that people seek to play with boundaries. These might lead to mixed results. The boundary art is to look around, beneath, above and within to influence the core human systems. Often, this requires deep engagement with the values of those involved. This is the stuff of great coaching. With curiosity and a sense of adventure, coaching conversations over time can help people to navigate boundaries – and to establish and alter them – in ways that lead to great outcomes.
Canadian writer William Paul Young, says, “You need boundaries… Even in our material creations, boundaries mark the most beautiful of places, between the ocean and the shore, between the mountains and the plains, where the canyon meets the river.”
What boundaries are you navigating right now? What walls might be blocking you? How do they look if you shift your perspectives? What is really possible? Who can help you? These are some of the questions that we ask as coaches.
Dr Fran Finn and Dr Geoff Abbott are featured speakers in the QUT Leadership Coaching Conference in November 2019, exploring how to step forward and engage with change by navigating boundaries and generating creative tension through conversation, connection and collaboration.
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