Want better boundary setting? Train managers first

A striped cat is curled up in a flower box full of red flowers. It clearly shouldn't be there

“My employees have trouble saying no or setting boundaries with their managers. Can you train my employees to be better at boundary setting?”

I can – but it’s usually a waste of your time and money. If an employee expects a negative reaction from their manager, they probably won’t set boundaries no matter how much training they get.

What would work better? Teaching managers how to make it safer for their reports to set boundaries, and then investing in training employees.

Here’s how I teach executives and managers to encourage their employees to set boundaries:

1. Explain why boundary setting helps managers: managers get more information sooner, are better at predicting when work will be done, and can better avoid burning out their employees.

2. Name and explain sources of power differentials, such as position in a hierarchy, race, or gender. Share specific real-world examples.

3. Describe common responses to people with less power setting boundaries for people with more power: anger, pressure, ignoring the boundary, retaliation of many kinds.

4. Discuss how past negative experiences and current power differentials can make it harder for employees to set boundaries.

5. Explore several techniques managers can use to make boundary setting easier for their employees, using specific real-world situations and small group discussions.

Here are three examples of ways managers can make boundary setting easier:

1. Create situations where people can set boundaries in unimportant situations and respond positively when they do so.

2. Describe in advance what your (positive) response will be if they set a boundary, and follow through if they do it.

3. Give people ways to send productive but unpleasant feedback anonymously and respond positively when they do so (fix problem, publicly thank, reward everyone).

Once your managers are making it safer to set boundaries, you can invest in training your employees to set boundaries without wasting your organization’s time and money.

To schedule a talk on boundary setting or learn more about boundary setting training, email contact@frameshiftconsulting.com

Featured image CC BY Diane Gregg https://flic.kr/p/7yWUxG, edited by FSC