Communicating About Boundaries is Essential to Engaging and Empowering Others

By Heather Campbell

By Heather Campbell >>

In today’s working environment, it is good practice for leaders to empower and engage people in order to get better business results. As regular readers of this blog will know, CommsMasters certainly subscribes to the link between an empowered and engaged workforce and business results that head north.

But the focus on empowerment and engagement is leading to one of the big mistakes that leaders are making when they delegate projects or tasks. This is a failure to establish the clear boundaries within which those projects or tasks should be completed.

As a result, it is as common for people to complain that their leaders don’t give enough clear direction as it is for them to bemoan being micromanaged. You see, boundaries don’t simply set constraints – they also make it clear where individuals and teams are free to make their own choices. People need both if they are to move forward with confidence.

Managers leave people with too much choice, believing that giving lots of freedom is ‘a good thing’ and will lead to engagement as a result. But that simply isn’t the case.

There are two main problems when people are left with unclear or non-existent boundaries:

(1) They will develop and then commit to an idea or way of working that the manager immediately vetoes because it crosses boundaries that they hadn’t made explicit. In fact, it’s surprising how often managers didn’t even realise they have boundaries until they get crossed! This sloppy thinking on the manager’s part becomes a major cause of frustration, confusion and demotivation amongst those who engaged wholeheartedly in the project or task only to hear ‘No’ to their proposal or outcome.

(2) They will not start the project or task at all because having no constraints is actually overwhelming. Our brains need to know where the constraints are as much as where we have choice if they are to be able to act.

Here’s a quick demo: first, pause to think of everything you know about geography. Chances are that your brain draws a blank – not because you don’t know anything about geography but because your brain has too wide a field from which to select information and it simply can’t focus as a result.

Now pause to think about Australia – where it is in the world, its approximate shape, how it compares in size to your country of residence. Assuming you know the answers to these questions your brain will quickly take action and provide them – because it now has boundaries within which to choose what information it accesses.

It’s exactly the same when you ask others to undertake projects or tasks. Leave them with complete freedom, and they don’t know where to begin. Set some boundaries and they can begin to make the choices that lead to action.

So, the next time you are asking a member of your team to suggest improvements, undertake a new project or carry out a task, make sure you are clear first about the boundaries you have in mind and where they truly are free to make choices.

It’s easy to consider the obvious ones such as budget and timescales, but take time to be clear about others too, such as information they can access or with whom they should network to get the job done. What about the ways you want to be kept updated and how often? Or expectations you have around what the end result will look like?

And if you truly have no boundaries, then spend time discussing what these might be with your team and agreeing some, rather than having them set off with too little to work on.

Setting clear boundaries, which provide enough elements of choice as well as reasonable constraints, is both empowering and engaging – so take time to communicate about and discuss them with the people you want to empower and engage.

Does this resonate with your own experiences of boundary-setting? Leave us a comment below and let us know what you think – we’ll respond to all comments/questions.


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