Set boundaries


I’ve always liked the old words of wisdom: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The idea of people knowing where the boundaries are, and the responsibilities that are assigned to each side of the fence, holds true in the corporate world, too.

Take the examples of a few leaders who mean well but have blurred boundaries:

Pete is a seasoned executive who is well-respected and admired for being a generous and caring man. He is someone you’d want to work for. He’s smart and accomplished and does what he can to help his sales directors in the field…and that’s when his strength becomes his weakness.

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Pete wants his directors to be successful, so he does some of their heavy lifting for them. For instance, to make sure they are hiring the right people he recruits and hires employees for his directors. There are several problems with this. First, the directors don’t have to “own” the choice. It’s Pete’s hire, not theirs, so their personal investment isn’t 100 percent. Second, the new employee’s rapport and connection is with Pete, not their new boss. If the new employee falters, the directors were looking to Pete to get him or her back on track.

Fred is a savvy entrepreneur who has grown his business from ten employees to 500 employees in a few years. Like many business owners who are trying to keep up with rocketing growth, he has been adding employees and reorganizing constantly. There hasn’t been much time to form policies or practices in the human resources area. So, Fred is resorting to moving people around the chess board as new needs pop up. That strategy has worked in some cases but not others.

With some of the employees, who have problem personalities and inappropriate behavior, his solution has been to pass them around, like a turkey on Thanksgiving. These problems just keep surfacing wherever the individual lands. Another approach has been to reorganize around the person – remove tasks and try to limit their contact with employees, customers, or certain peers.

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The question Fred has begun to face is, “Who is the owner of this problem behavior?” The conclusion he has reached is: “It’s their problem and they need to fix it or find somewhere else to work.” Up to this point he has been taking their employment as his responsibility and contorting the organization around their problem behavior.

In another situation, Emily is an executive director of a nonprofit. She assumed this role a year ago, after the former executive director left. Her predecessor was highly complementary of the staff and avoided honest feedback. As a result, the entire staff had to adjust when Emily took over, since she had high standards and saw plenty of room for improvement.

Everyone has risen to Emily’s challenge except for one staff member, Barbara. Barbara felt she should have Emily’s job, and has challenged her every step of the way. Emily was patient but persistent, yet no gains have been made with Barbara. She blows Emily off, argues about trivial decisions and is generally negative about things. Recently she has been dragging her feet to comply with Emily’s request for goals for the new year. As a result, Emily has decided to draft Barbara’s goals for her. Can you see where this is leading? Can you see the boundary blur?

I see these situations frequently in my coaching work. Well-meaning, otherwise strong leaders doing the wrong thing with good intentions. Doing someone else’s work because the employee is incapable or unwilling; or reorganizing, with the fervent hope that the new structure will enable someone to improve, are noble but flawed actions.

The place to start is to ask, “Who owns this?” If the answer is, “the employee does,” then they need to put the accountability on the employee to fix it and deal with them if they don’t. If the employer owns the problem (for example because he never gave honest feedback, or ignored a problem) he or she needs to step up and do what’s right (like level with the person).

If the answer lies on both sides of the fence, then the employer should come half-way, to make the job or the structure a better fit for the person. But the employee has to own their share of the situation and step up their performance, once they have clear expectations. Only then can an employer truly see, without distortion, if the employee can shoulder their responsibilities and stay in the organization.

Joan Lloyd is an executive coach and organizational and leadership development strategist. Her Milwaukee-based firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates Inc. has been a business resource for more than 20 years. She can be reached at (800) 348-194, or via

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