Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Addendum!

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In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.

In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.

Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.

What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.

As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.

This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.

In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:

“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”

Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.

So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.

As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”

What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”

Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.

Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!

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.

Boundaries – Professional, Part 1 – The Office: How to get more out when you go in …

If you skipped over the video above and jumped directly to this text, I would encourage you to go back and watch it. Or go ahead and watch it again, even if you already did. As you view it, try to notice which professional boundary aspects are at play. Which ones are being damaged or broken? Are there also some that are being appropriately held? Just watch and jot down anything you notice that either holds or challenges a temporal, kinetic, cognitive, or interpersonal boundary. Perhaps also pay some attention your internal (or emotional) response to what you notice. What strikes you as “to be expected,” “amusing, but wrong,” or even “appropriate” or “deserved?”

Spoiler alert: Almost none of the behavior we can observe in “The Office” is really appropriate, except perhaps what we see from Toby or, on occasion, Pam, Jim, Darryl, or Oscar. Most of the time, the characters are either selling themselves short, undercutting the entire enterprise, or overtly sabotaging their colleagues. Yes, this very much includes the individual who holds the most positional authority, Scranton Branch Manager Michael Scott.

Unfortunately, many of these same things are taking place in your office, and at your desk, every single day as well. Just in less entertaining and, hopefully, less dramatic fashion.

As I did in the two entries on Personal Boundaries, I will outline a few key considerations for each aspect of Professional Boundaries, and offer some important questions and actions to consider to improve your practice in this domain. Before we dive in, however, I will start by acknowledging that your position in your workplace will very much color the way you understand and interpret what I have to say about professional boundaries in all four aspects. This is both, I believe, correct and very important to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who do not hold positional authority (i.e. we are not anyone’s “boss” or “supervisor”) in our professional lives. If this describes your situation, then my best advice would be that you consider the following points in light of yourself as your own “boss,” because, yes, you are your own boss, first and foremost. No one else determines your thoughts, attitudes, and actions more than, or before, you do.

Temporal Professional Boundaries can be easily found in a few high-frequency work situations: meetings, tasks/projects (whether done in a “team” or on one’s own), and so-called spontaneous interactions. With meetings, whether you are the one calling them or simply being called to them, it is important to have real clarity on your relationship to meetings and time.

If you are the one who sets meetings, do you set them to start, last, and end, with deliberate attention to questions of time? Do you set team/office meetings to start at a time that can work as well as possible for as many team members as possible? This is especially important as in-office schedules become increasingly fluid and flexible for more and more workers. Even more important, especially for bosses, do you start AND END work gatherings on time? If not, what excuse(s) are your favorite(s)? Keep in mind, if an excuse becomes the norm, it’s no longer much of an excuse.

If you are a meeting participant, do you get to meetings on time (in your seat and ready to engage at least one to two minutes before the appointed meeting time)? Do you linger chatting with co-workers, or even your supervisor/boss, even after the meeting has ended? Perhaps you only tend to hang back and talk further when there are obvious and important reasons to do so, but it’s worth asking whether this is always, or often, the case. If it is, it’s also worth wondering why. What work might you be avoiding by hanging around after the “real” meeting has dispersed?

Within meetings, as a meeting leader do you manage time well, or do you let discussion, and even digression, rule the day? Do you provide an agenda (with or without time blocks)? Is it realistic? Do you follow it? As a meeting participant, do you make timely contributions to group discussions or meeting leader questions? Do you pay attention to for how long you tend to talk and seek to limit yourself accordingly, or do you find that others often end up cutting you off? If your boss is the one who often cuts you off, this is possibly a sign that you need to reconsider your approach. Perhaps you should consider limiting yourself to what you can say with just one breath (meaning, if you have to stop to take a breath, it’s also time to stop talking) each time you go to make a contribution. If this technique doesn’t encourage you to think before you open your mouth, maybe it will at least get you back to the gym more often…

NOTE: I am not addressing emergency work meetings here. I understand that there are periods in most any workplace where outside events dictate when meetings must start, end, how they “should” be run, and how long they must last. Those just are what they are. But, when we are in the normal course of things, we often fall into a kind of automaticity with the way we behave in and around meetings that can create at least as many problems as it solves, if not more.

Kinetic Professional Boundaries are fairly straightforward. Pay attention to how you carry yourself physically in different situations (e.g. while sitting alone at your work station, while sitting in meetings, when entering your boss’s or another colleague’s work area). Do you pay attention to your posture? Sitting up straight, but still comfortably, not only creates a better impression of you in others’ eyes, it can also have a positive impact on your own energy and engagement levels. If you’re not convinced that simple body movements can effect internal changes, don’t just take my word for it: https://news.osu.edu/nodding-or-shaking-your-head-may-even-influence-your-own-thoughts-study-finds/

One other thing to pay attention to, especially if you hold positional authority at work, is whether or not you deliberately and consistently mirror other people’s body position and language. For example, if you approach an employee who is sitting down, do you look for an opportunity to also sit before you begin talking to them? If you are a subordinate, if your boss is sitting when you encounter him or her, look for an opportunity to be seated as well, asking “permission” if necessary. This is also effective, and almost certainly appreciated, when engaging with colleagues. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can, and often should, do things physically to increase connection and engagement on cognitive and affective levels.

Resource recommendations (I don’t necessarily 100% agree with everything in these additional readings, but only reading, or recommending, things with which we agree may not be a best practice after all…):

Tips for leaders to run better meetings: https://www.inc.com/partners-in-leadership/4-ways-to-run-better-meetings-and-transform-your-culture.html

Strategies and techniques for making more meaningful contributions: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/04/how-to-get-heard-in-meetings-deep-breaths-superhero-poses-and-owning-bossy

Different meeting participant roles and functions: http://projectmanagementhacks.com/8-ways-to-contribute-to-meetings/

Come back later this week for part two on Professional Boundaries, the cognitive and interpersonal. Until then, check out Mat’s recent post on the complexity of problem solving and different problem “types.

Putting the “B” in BASE: Outlining our boundaries for ourselves and others.

What better topic for the start of the New Year than boundaries? Liminal spaces are defined by boundaries and, if we stop and think about it, so are many of the crucial decision points in our daily lives.

Last week I provided an overview of the personal and professional leadership model I have come to conceptualize over the years as BASE. Yes, it is yet another acronym for us to consider in a world that seems to be quickly approaching, or perhaps even exceeding, a critical mass state of WTFs and SMHs. Nevertheless, I share this with you in the sincere belief that by reflecting on the thoughts that underlie each of BASE’s four principles, you can build a program for yourself that will aid you in challenging even the most powerful of the FOMOs!

Over the course of this month, each week I will outline some critical questions and guidelines for developing ourselves and our thinking around the “B” in BASE: Boundaries. Today I will quickly outline what I see as the critical elements of Boundaries, and offer a few reflection questions to prepare us for the work ahead.

So, in that spirit, I offer you this invitation: when you read or hear the word “boundaries” what other things (whether they be other words, images, or emotions) do you immediately associate with the term? Take a moment and write some of those down before reading on.

Now, armed with your list of associations, consider the following question: what are the relationships between the boundaries that exist in your life today and your “self”? Are they relationships of reassuring structure and congruence? Do they generate productivity? Tension?

Reflect on the things you jotted down just a moment ago and try to connect with the thoughts and emotions you may have experienced as you wrote them. Did you feel mostly positive and reassured, or were apprehension and friction also involved? For many of us, traditional boundaries are experienced as much as limitations on what we want and need as they are sources of security and wellbeing. This ambivalence, or the potential for it, is vital for understanding the power of boundaries in our lives. However, let’s return for a moment to the definition and question about Boundaries that I posed in last week’s post:

Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?

For me, the real core question has to do with the extent to which we are in charge of the narrative we hold for ourselves around the Boundaries in our lives. In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to think of Boundaries as falling under some different kinds of categories.

I divide my thinking on Boundaries into two major sets: areas and aspects. The four areas of Boundaries in the BASE model are: Personal, Professional, Physical, and Psychological. If we want to fully understand the nature and role of Boundaries in our lives, we must be able to identify and evaluate them across a spectrum of our existential domains. Do these areas and aspects sometimes, or even often, overlap? They almost certainly do, but Boundaries that inhabit two or more of these areas in our lives most likely originate in just one of them. Knowing the genesis of any boundary that permeates multiple areas is vital to our ability to (re)assume agency with respect to it.

Again, take a moment to consider these four areas and make a short list of the Boundaries, for yourself and for others, that you can already identify in each. Remember that there is no way to get any of this wrong. If you perceive it as a Boundary in your life, then it is! Feel free to underline any that are present in more than one area, as they will likely be ones that warrant greater consideration from you.

Once we have a sense of the way Boundaries in our lives work across the four areas, it can be productive to examine them in terms of their aspect(s). The four aspects of Boundaries that comprise this portion of the BASE model are Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal. When considered properly and kept in balance, each of the four Boundary areas will also entail some element of each of these four Boundary aspects.

Temporal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Kinetic Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. Cognitive Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, and Interpersonal Boundaries pertain to our interactions with others.

As one final reflection exercise for today, return to your list of Boundaries in each of the four areas, and try to label each with one or more relevant aspects. Once you have made a pass at this, examine the list again and notice the distribution of Boundaries across both areas and aspects. Does it already suggest anything to you about the relative equilibrium in your life in this regard? Does it challenge or reinforce any closely held ideas you may have about your “self” and the ways in which you engage with your world? Feel free to journal a bit on this (set a Temporal Boundary for it!) and see what surfaces for you. Hang on to these “notes” you have made, as they will prove valuable as we delve more deeply into each of the four Boundary areas each week for the rest of the month.

I will stop here for now. Over the course of the rest of this month, I will delve into a different Boundary area in a new post each week. Along the way, I will provide more detail and definition to my understanding of each area and the important aspects within it, as well as offering some additional reflection questions and, here and there, book, podcast, and/or app recommendations.

Until next week!

This was an empty post

About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):

  • We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful.  We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
  • At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.

We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …

This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.