Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Office Space Is A Function Of Our Head Space: How to stay motivated and make sure you’ve always got the memo …

Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:

Look for the cognitive and interpersonal boundaries that define Peter in this space…

What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:

Now what cognitive and interpersonal boundaries are at play for Peter?

So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…

In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.

Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…

For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.

Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.

So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?

Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…

What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.

But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.

And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…

Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.

There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.

While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.

Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.

I hope you found today’s post helpful, or at least interesting. Check out part 1 on Temporal and Kinetic Professional Boundaries if you missed it, and/or read parts 1 and 2 on Personal Boundaries. If you want the broadest of strokes, have a look at my introductory posts on the BASE model and Boundaries as its first component.

Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.

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