What are boundaries? A practical definition is “the lines or limits that are not to be crossed,” such as not passing a school bus when its red lights are flashing and one doughnut per week. We all create boundaries, some less rigid than others, but they’re meant to benefit and protect us without getting in the way of what we want to accomplish. 

Nearly all of us struggle with effectively engaging others in getting our own desires to become reality. There are lots of things we’d like to accomplish, and in general, they require others’ buy-in. By setting up boundaries and rules, we’re often faced with objections. It’s natural for people to push back on our “reasonable limits/boundaries” in order to “get ‘r done.” We can expect resistance whenever our expectations are perceived to inhibit others’ actions and wants. Yet some limits are needed. To help overcome this normal human behavior, it is necessary to have open, candid communication on boundaries, expectations, and common goals.

Management boundaries

To illustrate this concept, I’m reminded of the boundaries that were once diagramed by a former boss of mine. I knew he meant business because he asked that I close the door before taking a seat in his office. He sketched the following on a white board: 

He carefully (and with some intensity) laid out what was bothering him about my work behavior. The four sides to the box represented his boundaries; inside of which were his comfort zones; he told me I needed to stay inside them. The four walls included safety, ethics, legality and lost-profit potential. He explained finite limits in each area and that he viewed all of them essential — to the company, to his career and to my role as a manager.  As I looked and listened, I could understand his points, even though my boundaries in some cases differed from his. We agreed that I had never crossed any of his boundaries. (Had I done so, the discussion would have been about the end of my career for violating his rules of engagement.) Instead, he explained what was bothering him: I was operating at (or beyond) the edge of his comfort (buffer) zone. 

 Although I didn’t cross the lines, his personal reality was that he had a buffer or comfort zone that I was operating beyond. In truth, I needed to give him a “mental comfort zone” that wouldn’t keep him awake at night or worrying about mishaps that might jeopardize the success of the business, have legal implications, or even cause embarrassment.

From a rational management standpoint, buffer zones are a boss’ friend. They allow some leeway for those subordinates of us who can operate too close to the edge. On the other hand, there are bosses who keep too tight of a leash; they’re never fully comfortable with decisions their charges might make. These are the micro-managers of the world. Fortunately, my boss was not one of those.

Family boundaries

My boss’ point of view made sense, and in my mind there was much more to the diagram than what he initially drew. I began to see all kinds of different boundary diagrams. Among the obvious ones were things like personal credit card debt or excessive speed. Another intriguing set of boundaries involves the raising of a teenager. Our kids kept pushing the limits until they found out what truth really was.  What they were doing was testing both the limits and the buffers of my wife and me.  A “no response” from either of us set up a laissez-faire family culture that was potentially dangerous to our children, our family and others.

Tight boundaries

What do the boundaries have to do with safety management? A prime example is the whole area of OSHA regulations. Here the boundary system appears inverted. Often the bureaucracy doesn’t seem to care what we do as long as we put a check in the “regs” box. This is not the type of culture that leads to high performance. A healthy safety culture needs more than a “check in the box mentality.” Standards and regulations are only part of the equation. 

Give the boss a break

In conclusion, I had never thought of my actions as out of the norm. For me, they weren’t. It was just that I was more comfortable than my boss was when it came to operating on the edge. Rather than fight the proverbial City Hall (which never works), I decided to give my boss a buffer in each of his sensitive areas. In the end, there was little difference in what I was doing or how. I was allowed to continue a very similar strategy and tactics, but with a slightly longer time frame to achieve the goals we both needed. Had I not changed to fit the boss’ boundary buffers — his realities — it is doubtful that I could have kept my position much longer.

As I have worked with people and organizations around the globe, dealing with boundary limit realities has proven to be very beneficial. Whether or not he or she realizes it, every boss has a mental boundary and buffer diagram that is not a perfect square. There are some areas in which you have almost total free will, and others that are very well defined. I challenge you to use a reasonable approach to identify the real limits as soon as you can. By doing so, you can extend your personality and passion into near unlimited performance . . . thereby making your life, job and organizational experiences much more rewarding than living in a virtual, unexplored box of mediocrity.