That which serves to indicate the bounds or limits of anything whether material or immaterial; also the limit itself. (OED)
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 so take on too much is linked to low self-esteem and confidence. As researcher and author Dr Brene Brown writes: ‘Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves.’[i] Most of us recognise the importance of boundaries – or their absence – in our lives. But it’s important we also think clearly about the types of boundaries we encounter, their consequences, and the opportunities they give us.
The art of the boundary
In my role as a leadership coach with QUT Graduate School of Business, I invariably find that executive clients are navigating multiple personal and professional boundaries 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 offer “no” as part of a wall that keeps others out and isolates you, thereby reducing your influence and capacity to achieve goals. The boundary art is to offer “no” in a way that invites further contact and creates the potential for a future relationship.
Working with boundaries
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 on which side of it you stand. This is a valuable perspective when you consider the boundaries that exist in our lives. Is this wall as impenetrable as it seems? What is it really like on the other side?
The nature of boundaries reflects the breadth of our human experience. Here are some boundaries I work with.
A leader is working through a merger or acquisition to remove or change boundaries long-established by corporate history. Another must navigate a boundary change after promotion to a new level in the company. Yet another faces a cultural shift when they move to a new country and take on an expatriate role. These cultural boundaries can be invisible, intangible and impossible to navigate.
Many coaching assignments help people to cross psychological boundaries, for example, working to achieve shifts in levels of consciousness as an individual moves through the stages of adult development. Or, a boundary might be as simple, and as devastating, as the one that stops an executive from standing up and making a critical speech. Very commonly, the boundary takes the form of an ideological or policy difference where two sides have lined up with fixed positions with seemingly no room for negotiation.
What doesn’t work
It is a mistake to think boundaries can simply be erased or drawn, their walls knocked down or built – and then all will be well. We can still hear echoes of Ronald Reagan’s words, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, yet can we say that the geopolitical reality of 1987 is that much different to today’s? 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 at play, nothing much will change. Relocations, new IT systems, rebrandings and so on are ways people often play with boundaries – with mixed results.
And what does
I help people understand the nature of the boundary challenges they face. I encourage them to think positively about both setting goals and achieving them. And I work a lot with empathy. That means I encourage people to see the world through the eyes of those on the other side of whatever boundaries we have identified. I also introduce them to paradoxical thinking – which encourages the retention of contradictory views or positions in such a way that they complement each other. The boundary art here is to be flexible, accept ambiguity and permeability, and steer away from black and white thinking.
The boundary art is to look around, beneath, above and within to influence the human systems that are really the core of the matter. 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 excellent outcomes.
Want to know more?
I like this quote from the Canadian writer William Paul Young:
“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.”
Consider the landscape of Byron Bay and material boundaries. Also, consider the diverse people who come to the region with their personal boundaries to traverse. Many are attracted to the region because it offers an inviting community that accepts difference. People can work and play across boundaries leading creative and purposeful lives.
A recent graduate of QUT’s Executive Graduate Certificate in Business (Leadership Coaching) is Jennifer St George. Jennifer is a Byron Bay resident who navigated her own boundaries to move from a high-pressured consultancy role in Melbourne to a rich and diverse life in the region; including as Chair of the Byron Bay Writers Festival.
What boundaries are you managing right now? Do you have walls blocking you? How do they look when you shift your perspective? Who can help you?
These are some of the questions we ask as coaches. We’ll be exploring these themes further on 22–23 November this year when QUT hosts a Leadership Coaching conference to consider the theme of ‘Crossing Boundaries’. All those interested are invited to come along as a delegate. You are also welcome to submit a paper. A photographic exhibition will be held concurrently and we invite delegates to submit photos on the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ theme.
Crossing Boundaries: Leadership Coaching Conference
22–23 November 2019 – Brisbane
The conference for today’s complex world
This article is based on an article published in May on Living Now.