Yesterday, I was with a coaching client who oversees a major piece of operational business for a company that is currently valued at just under $1 billion. He is working with me because he knows he can improve as a leader and he is up for the challenge.

We were discussing some of the most challenging issues he is currently facing, including a struggle with a difficult staff member. As he described the behaviors of this staff member (whom I’ll call Fred), a pattern began to emerge.

My client is comfortable treating each member on his team the same way. When I asked if this approach was effective with all people, all the time, I could see the wheels of his brain spinning to try and validate an affirmative answer.  It was at this moment he realized he might have to question a long held belief.

You see, he was brought up being told to treat everyone the same way. This lesson was ingrained in him early on and he really did his best to live up to the standard. Unfortunately he was dealing with Fred who, for his own reasons, didn’t respond positively to my client’s kind, caring, engaging approach. He knew it wasn’t working, yet didn’t quite know how to break out of the standard he so consistently followed. We talked about establishing new boundaries in his relationship with Fred.

Boundaries in our leadership relationships may not be something that is familiar to you. Setting boundaries often involves conversations that use different and more directive words than in normal conversations. Instead, my client’s usual approach was to use words which “requested” his staff to perform something or achieve a particular outcome.

This “requesting” approach uses introductory phrases such as “I’d like you to do…” or “Would you mind if you did…” or “I’d really appreciate it if you would…” Fred’s behavior demonstrated that he was clearly not responding positively to the requests. In fact, he was actually rejecting the request and doing what he wanted to do or thought was better.

My client will need to adopt a more directive approach which clearly defines the expected outcome in a given time frame as well as consequences if the task is not achieved. He will also have to commit to following through on the consequences if Fred’s performance is still below expectations.

Boundaries are necessary to clarify performance expectations and to avoid confusion, breakdowns in trust, and fragmentation among departments. When members of a team are aligned with a shared purpose, shared goals, and behavioral norms that lead to excellent performance then boundaries can be looser simply because the team is committed and all heading in the same direction. In the case of my client, Fred clearly is not aligned with the team’s goals; rather, he seems to be utilizing norms that benefit him alone, which causes dysfunction on the team.

Stronger, better defined boundaries are the solution. This approach can and does work, assuming of course the team member is committed to the vision and purpose the leader has developed. When issues still exist, next steps include implementing the consequences you stipulated when you set firmer boundaries.

What boundaries have you found to be helpful and successful in your context that I can share with others?

If you would like to talk about some boundaries you might want to consider for the “Freds” on your team, let me know – I’d be happy to help.

Best regards,