“Do you ever say yes when you want to say no?”
This question stopped me in my tracks when I began reading Terri Cole’s new book Boundary Boss.
I say yes way too often, actually.
As I read the book, I realized that my boundaries were more than “soft” — they were closer to non-existent.
That’s bad for me — but it’s also a problem for those around me. Because when you’re not clear on your own boundaries, you’re more likely to overstep someone else’s without even realizing it.
And for project leaders, that can be particularly problematic.
In my work, I often see project managers who are too hands-off. They are afraid of overstepping, and so they don’t hold others accountable at all. On the flip side, there are PMs who are criticized for micro-managing the team. Both these dynamics lead to team cultures that are mired in resentment, interpersonal conflict, and ineffective behaviors.
And both these dynamics arise from a problem with boundaries.
The Problem With Overstepping Boundaries
In a work environment, boundary violations are often specifically related to workload.
So many leaders and project teams are chronically overworked, overstressed, and overcommitted, that they often feel like they can’t handle a single additional thing.
This is a recipe for disaster, and that disaster shows up in a few different ways.
- Project leaders (and teams) believe their only option is to accept the work that rolls down on top of them — a recipe for resentment and burnout.
- Project leaders try to delegate, only to get pushback from team members who are already overloaded.
- Project leaders delegate, but have to monitor the team’s progress closely. They’re frequently left holding the bag when deadlines are missed or the work needs to be redone. This is a recipe for anger, aggravation, and increasing team conflict.
- Project leaders don’t trust others to do the work properly, so they keep too many tasks on their own plate. They become the bottleneck for the rest of the team.
- Project leaders delegate — but then micromanage the work. This is stressful for the team and overwhelming for the project leader.
- No one’s time is respected. Team members are expected to be on-call or working during their leisure time. No one gets a break, and the whole team risks burnout.
All these situations arise when people don’t feel empowered to set limits around when and how they’ll work.
As a project leader, you’re in a position to help create a culture that respects boundaries — and you can model that culture in your own work life.
Delegation Requires Healthy Boundaries
You’ll notice that in my list of examples above, most items involved delegating (or failing to delegate) work to others.
That’s because effective delegation is essential to leading a successful project team. And it’s just about impossible to delegate effectively when the parties involved are lacking healthy boundaries.
Here’s how you can delegate better — and shore up your professional boundaries in the process:
- Set and maintain your own boundaries around projects and workload.
Most project teams I work with are overwhelmed with (and fed up by) conflicting priorities and new requirements being handed down from on high. It’s stressful for everyone — and wildly ineffective for delivering successful projects or advancing the strategic goals of the company.
As the project leader, your role is to treat these requests as an opportunity to align around priorities, rather than as a demand you must fulfill. Make sure leaders understand the tradeoffs, risks, and implications involved in what they’re asking, and partner with them to find solutions that will serve the project and strategic goals. (A good project charter makes this MUCH easier!)
2. Set clear expectations.
You cannot hand off a task or project to anyone unless they understand the goals of their work, the broader strategy behind the project, their own role in the project, and what you want them to do.
That’s why I recommend creating a team charter and project charter. These documents give team members the context and information they need to work more intelligently and more effectively, so they can take ownership of their tasks.
3. Identify appropriate ways for everyone to contribute.
If you make all the decisions and have all the ideas, you’re not leaving room for your team to contribute usefully. The members of your team need practice strategizing, planning, and iterating — and they cannot learn if you do all the work for them.
Think of yourself as a mentor, rather than a boss. What kind of support and guidance does your team need in order to be successful with the tasks you give them?
In the short term, providing this level of support may take more time and effort from you than simply doing the work yourself. But stay the course! This is how you develop a team that can keep a project moving forward even when you’re not in the office. And a team like that can free up a LOT of your time and bandwidth.
4. Be intentional about your communications.
Work with your team to establish what kinds of communications are appropriate and necessary — and under what circumstances. Keep in mind that sending a non-urgent text or email on a weekend might let you cross something off your list — but it’s going to be a stressful distraction to the recipient.
Many people believe that “setting boundaries” requires a fight. That feels stressful — and it’s one reason that people often don’t set boundaries when they should.
But maintaining your boundaries doesn’t have to be adversarial. You can just as easily foster an environment where boundaries are naturally respected. And by creating structures and habits that support healthy boundaries for you AND your team, you make your work easier, more effective, and more successful.