Boundary setting is something one expects to find in a parenting book or a psychologist’s journal. However, it applies to adult to adult relationships at work as much as it does to adult to child relationships.

In almost any workplace, for any given behaviour required to deliver an organsation’s goal, people can be split into three groups.

One group is those that are both willing and able to perform and behave in a manner which contributes positively to the desired goal of the organisation.

Another group is those who are unwilling to contribute to the desired goal of the organisation even if they are able.

The third group is in the middle; those who sometimes are willing and sometimes are able to contribute to the desired goal of the organisation.

When boundaries are not set and people are allowed to behave in whatever fashion suits them, the unwilling group generally outnumbers the group which is willing and able.

People tend to seek the personal benefits of the freedom to do as they please over the benefits of the group.

When boundaries are set, with consequences for breaching the boundaries, the group which is willing and able tends to outnumber the group which is unwilling.

Further, when boundaries are set, with consequences for breaching them, the group in the middle tends to want to become more willing or more able to avoid the consequences.

There are basically three parts to a boundary. The first two are setting the boundary – the third is what we will do to defend that boundary.

If you {a description of the behavior we find unacceptable}.

We will {a description of what action we will take to protect and take care of the organisation in the event the other person violates the boundary}.

If you continue this behavior {a description of what steps we will take to protect the boundary that we have set}.

The need for boundary setting applies in several areas of business.

Financial transactions are an obvious area. If boundaries are not set with regard to authority levels for expenditure and expenses, then financial performance is usually impaired and financial irregularities become common.

If boundaries are not set with regard to starting jobs without a hazard analysis or policies on known, typical, industry-wide unsafe acts and unsafe conditions, then physical injury, asset loss and reputation loss are inevitable consequences.

When boundaries are not set with regard to customer greeting, sales approach and follow up, poor, or at least variable, service, poor reputation and poor sales result.

It is not enough to set boundaries. Boundaries must be adhered to. Breaching them must have a consequence. A negative consequence. If leaders give ground based on wanting to be “nice”, the implications for the organisation are usually negative.

For example, allowing people to claim personal expenses which are not allowed because it is difficult to say no is a start to more serious financial irregularities.

Allowing people to perpetrate an unsafe act or work around a safety procedure to “speed things up” without immediate negative feedback is a sure start to developing a laissez fare attitude to safety.

Allowing people to greet guests with a range of casual greetings including “hello”, “hi”, “how are you?” and “gidday”, rather than the more formal greeting we want our five star hotel to be known for, such as, “Good Morning, Sir”, will create, at best, a variety of brand positions in our customers’ minds. At worst, it will create the brand image of a casual social club rather than a five star establishment.

The ways in which boundaries can be set include policies and standards.

Policies are guiding principles. For example; “We will treat all customers with respect”. Or, “We will provide maternity leave of thirty weeks”, or “”We will report all incidents”. The methods by which policies are enacted are processes, procedures or work instructions.

Policies should be simple, short and clear. They should not be buried in the middle of procedures, processes or work instructions. There should be a clear consequence for not complying with all policies. Otherwise, the effectiveness of policies as boundary settings is compromised.

Standards are outcomes which are expected. They are written as {verb}, {noun} with a measure of what is a successful action. For example; “Answer the telephone within three rings” or “”Greet the customer with “Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Sir/Madam/Ms” There must also be a consequence for continually not meeting a standard. Otherwise standards lose their effectiveness.

Organisations which set boundaries and ensure that breaching them has a consequence, reward those people who are willing and able to strive for the organisation’s goals. They also motivate those people who are unsure whether there is any benefit in being willing and developing the ability to achieve the organisation’s goals.

Further, they provide a mechanism for counselling those people who remain unwilling to find another job which has requirements more suited to their ability and willingness.