Good Fences Make Good Neighbours – The Difficulty And Importance Of Boundaries

Good Fences Make Good Neighbours - The Difficulty And Importance Of Boundaries

Managing people

More than anything else, what we are aiming to do in order to manage people effectively is to create and sustain good working relationships. Ask anyone what they expect or hope for in a good relationship and they will talk about the need for trust, openness, honesty, and good communication and, of course, they would be right: those are important in any good relationship. Effective working relationships also depend on clear boundaries and expectations, so everyone is clear about what is expected of them and what constitutes acceptable or desirable behaviour.

In many ways, although it may not be very politically correct to say so, there are parallels between bringing up children and managing adults. It is widely accepted that children benefit greatly from knowing where they stand, and the most well-adjusted know exactly where the boundaries are. Only when you know where they are can you test them.

Establishing boundaries

In the film, The Last Emperor, there is a scene in which the infant Emperor splashes a servant who is attending him while he bathes. Seeing that there is no consequence to this action, he splashes another, before soaking as many as he can. He was always indulged and never challenged, growing up to be the weakest ruler his country had ever had, and overseeing the eventual dissolution of his empire.
The best time to establish these boundaries is as soon as you can.

The poet Robert Frost wrote, in ‘Mending Wall’, about the benefits of a day spent walking the boundaries between his farm and his neighbour’s, while they worked together to repair the fence between them. Having established the boundary, they knew where they stood and could work together in harmony: good fences, he wrote, make good neighbours.

Can you be a manager and a friend?

People often ask me if they can become someone’s manager and still be their friend. They worry about the risks of socialising with them as an equal one moment, and perhaps ‘telling them off’ the next. They wonder if that person will take them seriously as a manager, or if they will resent them for it, or think that the new manager has become ‘too big for their boots’.

There is no one simple answer to this question; no hard and fast rule that covers every eventuality, as all situations and the individuals involved are different. Some managers feel uncomfortable socialising with their teams outside of work, while others are more than happy with the idea. As with so many things, it comes down to personal preference.

A manager told me that his boss was trying to pressurise him into joining his colleagues in the pub after work, telling him that he was isolating himself from the team by going home instead. I believe his boss is wrong. That may be her style, but if it isn’t his, then he shouldn’t be forced into complying. If he is professional at work, listens to his staff, supports them and gives them clear direction then why should he drink with them too? Mind you, he also told me that he wears earphones at work sometimes if he needs to get something done, and I felt that was perhaps less appropriate as a working style!

The key to dealing with this question of friendship versus management, or formality versus informality, is to recognise that people working together do so most effectively when they are clear about their respective roles. If you understand your own role, including expectations and limitations, and you understand the roles of your colleagues, you can work together. If there is confusion, then you can’t.

Being a manager or a team member does not make us more or less important

 

A period of adjustment

A newly promoted manager will go through an adjustment, as will their former colleagues. Both of you need to get used to the new relationship. However, the only thing that has changed, and the only thing that needs to change, is your respective roles. You are both still the same people, and if you got on well before, there is no reason not to continue to get on well in the future. In order to keep it that way, however, we need to accept the new working relationship and ensure that it works for everyone. Here are a few suggestions if you are in this position (they also work if you are an experienced manager taking over a new team or changing an existing one):

  • If your previous relationship was based on gossip and negativity, you are unlikely to have been promoted in the first place! But if there are elements of this then you will need to resist the temptation to join in. It may initially unsettle others, but they’ll get used to it
  • If your previous relationship was based on gossip and negativity, you are unlikely to have been promoted in the first place! But if there are elements of this then you will need to resist the temptation to join in. It may initially unsettle others, but they’ll get used to it
  • If your previous relationship was friendly and involved social contact outside of work, carry on as before. Don’t worry about what people think of you, and don’t try to be someone you’re not – it won’t work, and it will only make any uncertainty on the other person’s part worse by proving that there really is something to worry about
  • Don’t try to ‘please’ people too much, just do your job well and expect them to do theirs
  • Involve them in discussing some of the challenges and responsibilities of your position. Again, not in a complaining or needy way, but in a positive one. If they understand why you are now doing different things or asking different things of them, they are more likely to accept it and work with you
  • Remember that they are adjusting too and don’t be too quick to take offence if they challenge or question something. Instead, deal with it professionally and only discuss the personal aspect if you feel it is getting in the way of their contribution to the team and the task
  • Share your ideas with them and ask for their input. Then make the decisions you need to make and communicate them with confidence
  • Recognise good performance with a simple acknowledgement. Raise any issues you need to raise in the same straightforward way. You’re only doing your job, and no-one (especially your team) will thank you for not doing it.

 

I hope this blog has been useful to you and if I can be of any more help, please get in touch.

 

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