Good fences make good neighbors:

why setting boundaries is the new leadership imperative


Published on: January 2021

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki, Andrew Atkins

A client recently said, “I have virtual meetings from 8am-6pm, eat dinner, and work until late in the evening. Then I work on the weekend—I am totally fried.” Sound familiar? You’re not alone. We’re hearing this same concern from many of the leaders we advise whose organizations have gone virtual.

Without being able to connect with colleagues in the office, calendars are crammed. Formal meetings replace dropping in for a chat. Leaders squeeze in planning time late at night or the 30 seconds between video meetings. Ironically, even with so many meetings, leaders feel they are less in touch with their teams and lack the insight to know what is truly going on. And to top it off, being their best as a partner, parent, and friend, well… that’s reached an all-time low, too.

Unfortunately, this is one of the great challenges in our virtual world. A whole set of boundaries leaders previously relied on have been erased. The commute, decompression time between office and home, and the distance between the two are no longer a sanctuary. Home is the office and vice versa. One client recently told us that she misses her commute—something she said she could never have imagined saying a year ago.

And, with even more pressure on executives to increase revenue, execute strategy quickly, and reduce expenses, it is likely this division between work and home will become even blurrier.

Boundaries create needed structure for you and others

We know deep down that working this way isn’t sustainable for the long-term and yet it’s unclear now how much longer virtual will be the norm. Many companies are making decisions to eliminate traditional office space. After this pandemic is over, perhaps many will still be remote. This is why boundaries are more critical now than ever for executives. Using strategies to ensure you have ample planning and thinking time and to attend to important work relationships is critical for you to free up bandwidth to lead your team and focus on what’s most important to move your business in the right direction.

By treating your time as a highly valuable commodity, you’ll make the right choices to invest your time where it will yield the greatest return.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Not only does setting productive boundaries create time for you; it enables you to be a better colleague by offering the opportunity for appropriate redirection to get things done even more quickly and efficiently without your involvement. With an already over-booked schedule, taking on multiple new requests daily simply slows down processes, creates a bottle neck for others, and layers on additional stress for you.

On the other hand, establishing productive boundaries creates value added focus, strong partnerships, and bridges silos while advancing the business and your team.

You’ll be able to respond to requests by providing even better ways to accomplish the objective. Others will begin to see you as a strong sounding board and as a thought partner. They will know they can count on you to share your perspective to get things done most effectively and efficiently. If this is your intention, any reluctance to be a good steward of your own time is to your detriment.

This may sound counterintuitive. After all, setting boundaries often implies a lack of cooperation or collegiality. However, many leaders who employ the right boundaries tell us these fences benefit everyone by fostering the right progress on important strategies.

Most people have a hard time saying no. We want to be seen as a team player and being asked to help often equates to being valued. However, too often our performance is diminished by fragmenting our efforts across too many domains. By taking on more, we end up doing less.

So how do you set effective boundaries?

As requests come in, quickly analyze whether taking on the task is a smart use of your limited energy and time. Ask yourself these three tough questions:

1.   Is my participation necessary? If not, whose is?

2.   Is it necessary now? If not, what is the right timing?

3.   Is this the optimal way to do this project? If not, what is the best way?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these three, re-direct the effort in a way that makes better business sense. By saying ‘no’ while offering a solution, you will be considered a collaborative thought partner. Use one of these three phrases:

No, not…

  • …me: You acknowledge the work needs to be done and, while saying you’re not the person to do the work, you are recommending the right resource.
  • …now: You recognize that time is often the scarcest resource and that, if your direct involvement is critical, you are opening the door to a mutually agreeable timeline.
  • …this way: While you value the outcome the other party is seeking, you are collaborating on an approach that may be more efficient or effective.

If saying ‘no’ feels uncomfortable, a ‘yes, if…’ phrase is a positive alternative to create the same boundaries:

Yes, if…

  • …someone else does it: Recommend someone who is a viable replacement for you, perhaps someone who could use some exposure or for whom it can be a beneficial learning opportunity.
  • …we adjust the timing: Offer timing that will work for you and the business.
  • …we structure it differently: Suggest a way to reach the end goal that is equally or more effective and works for you.
The outcome: good fences and better outcomes

Building strong fences enables you to become an important solution rather than a bottleneck. You become the proverbial good neighbor to your colleagues and the enterprise. And most importantly, you begin to clear valuable pockets on your calendar for your most important focus.

The best leaders set aside thinking and preparation time, honor it, and use it wisely. Don’t you owe it to yourself, and everyone else, to create boundaries that enable you and your organization to thrive?

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