The research upon which Brené Brown‘s Dare to Lead™ is based indicates that boundary-setting is one of the keys to leadership success. When we arrive at the section on boundaries in the Dare to Lead™ curriculum, though, participants often audibly groan and say things like:
“Oh, this is difficult.”
“I’m not very good at boundaries.”
“Can I really do this?”
Yes, you can and we all should!
Why are boundaries so important and so difficult?
First, why they’re difficult: We have a tendency to think of boundaries as hard lines, ultimatums, absolutes. “Boundaries are not a wall or moat.” Brené says, “They create an environment of respect.”
If we’ve been socialized to please or accommodate others, to be easy-going, easy to work with, or a team player, it may seem that boundary setting falls outside acceptable behavior. (Note data on women, performance & likability at work.) It’s also often the case that more junior or less powerful positions in teams or organizations’ (even family) systems may seem to preclude boundary-setting.
For those systems to thrive, though, clear shared boundaries are essential. Setting boundaries is not necessarily limiting or being rigid or difficult. Instead, Brené says,
“One of the most shocking findings of my work was that the most compassionate people I interviewed over the last 13 years were also the most boundaried. …If we don’t set boundaries, we let people do things that are not ok.”
Then there are reactions and consequences of those boundary transgressions, which look different from group to group and can include: lack of accountability or follow-through, withdrawing or withholding by or from certain members, silencing, resentment.
To create relationships and environments with respect, with psychological safety, establishing and maintaining boundaries is essential. Success lies in how we do it.
How to improve skill and ease setting boundaries?
Google’s People Operations well-known Project Aristotle Research on what makes the most effective teams found that “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” Establishing team agreements is essential to that process, and was recently reasserted in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article.
Discussing and agreeing upon what works and what doesn’t, what’s okay and what’s not – establishing and maintaining such agreements is an exercise in boundary-setting and creates a foundation for successful relationships. Brené Brown puts it this way:
“My question is BIG: What Boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in Integrity and make the most Generous assumptions about you?”
When most people think of Brené Brown’s work, it is associated with vulnerability. Boundaries show us where the playing field, the parameters, for our communication are. If, as Dr. Brown says, vulnerability is the birthplace of generosity, compassion, creativity, and innovation then boundaries create the context through communication. This is why they are essential leadership skills. Great leaders not only draw personal boundaries, but also boundaries around their teams, their star performers, their emerging talents, etc.