We live in The Era of Professional Boundaries

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Have we entered the era of professional boundaries?

Here’s an article from Wharton on the trade-off between better pay and more job flexibility — which shouldn’t have to be a trade-off, because results should matter in a job and if you get those results and you’re over reading at your kid’s school, who cares? — and this quote down near the bottom jumps out:

That, of course, is the paradox of flexibility for nearly everyone — the constant intermingling of work and family life makes many people feel “overwhelmed and out of control,” as Freidman puts it. “So many feel they don’t have a sense of control over the conditions of their lives,” he says. “That is typical now — this sense that one has to react rapidly to the ever-present demands on your attention of so many different people who have access to you through the media through which we are now communicating. That has created a new kind of demand for a skill in managing boundaries between work and the other parts of your life that matter — turning it off so that other people benefit as you benefit yourself.”

OK, now this quote has a little bit of ‘Temple Of Busy’ bullshit associated with it — “OMG, I am just so slammed! I have no time for anything!” as you text your co-worker from the margarita bar — and it has a little bit of the generic “Social media changed everything!” thing we always hear in business journalism as executives run back to their offices plotting a new cold calling strategy.

But the end portion is interesting: demand for a skill in managing boundaries. Professional boundaries. That’s the new era we’re in. It has repercussions everywhere.

Professional boundaries: How do you play it?

I wrote a long time ago about how any real conversations regarding ‘the future of work’ probably tie back to the idea of being a ‘personal gatekeeper,’ which is largely based around a 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Dorie Clark entitled “Stop people from wasting your time.”

I think this is all good stuff — people wasting your time at work is a huge friggin’ problem everywhere, and especially around meetings and phone calls — but it gets a little tricky at the intersection point of Not Wanting Your Time Wasted Boulevard and Professional Boundaries Avenue.

See, here’s the deal: hierarchy exists. It’s not going anywhere, despite what we think about the millennial mindset. We all understand the Peter Principle too, or the Kruger-Dunning Effect. While we want to think that the executives or decision-makers in our companies and our lives are smart, nuanced, expertise-laden people … they’re often just as clueless as us in some ways and fear incompetence even more.

Do you know what happens when someone has organizational authority, but kinda sorta knows they’re a fraud, and is also terrified of being viewed as one?

Professional boundaries come into play big time — but instead of ‘boundaries,’ which imply there’s a little give-and-take (a boundary involves two things), there’s absolutely no give and take.

You see this most commonly with e-mail, which is just a representation of the existing hierarchy of wherever you work. There have been dozens of studies — some discussed at that link right there — about how people up a chain never have to respond to e-mails, but people down a chain have to keep responding to seem like they’re “on top” of something. That tethers middle managers to their inbox at 11pm, which is a massive productivity killer. In reality it’s often the executive or high-ranking person that has no clue what’s going on with a project, because those types tend to swoop in at random intervals and bark about what it needs or the overall direction, thinking they just displayed leadership. (They didn’t. They displayed out-of-context management, which is inherently garbage.)

Professional boundaries intersecting with hierarchy means you have thousands of people in the world who think they’re above responding to e-mail, for example. “I’m a target hitter! I get shit done! Let the peons debate in their inboxes!” That stalls projects because these guys tend to be decision-makers, and everyone else is kinda farting around on their e-mails until that guy weighs in — but he won’t, and if/when he does, it will be some out-of-context jibberish about vision and accountability.

That’s where I get weary about the idea of professional boundaries. I do think it’s the era we’re in, but I think as a term it’s designed to protect those who already have influence and power. I’ve probably been told 27 times at different jobs, for example, that I can’t try to get a meeting with someone because “they’re too important.” My favorite variation of that is the ol’ “He wouldn’t have anything possible to discuss with you.” I pride myself on getting those meetings and making them count for something.

People are human beings. A CEO and a two-year-tenured product manager are both human beings. They can have a discussion and learn from each other. When we start using the term ‘professional boundaries’ to mean they can’t, that means the CEO can only speak to his/her lieutenants. You know what that creates? A whole heap of garbage and same-think.

Professional boundaries and priority management

Let’s move it away from the execs for a second. Let’s say you’re a harried middle manager and it feels like people just keep tossing stuff onto your plate from every angle. My personal viewpoint is that middle management will die off in effective lean organizations of the future, but that’s still years (decades?) away. So for now, let’s entertain the notion of the Temple of Busy-worshiping, Cross-Hopping-On middle manager.

If your professional boundaries keep getting violated — if everyone needs something, in other words — what can you do?

There’s really only one answer.

You need to learn how to manage priorities.

Literally, all business really is … is a sequence of actions where you try to maximize time and make money relative to that. That’s all it is. We over-complicate it in 995 different ways — “Cloud-based solutions!” — but the whole idea is use time wisely and make money.

The only way to use time wisely and make money?

Be clear on priorities.

Unfortunately, that’s very hard for many organizations and their managerial levels — there’s documented research that most CEO lieutenants are unclear of the CEO’s priorities (odd), silos are rampant (consistently redefined priorities relative to functional area), and there’s additional research that managers are often the worst within organizations at setting priorities.

We’ve all had the bad boss — heck, here are 12 variations of that idea — and when we have this bad boss, we often talk about key concepts such as:

  • Poor communicator
  • Doesn’t seem to care about me
  • Too much work
  • No respect for professional boundaries
  • Priorities are always shifting

The last bullet kind of explains the four bullets that came before it. When you’re in a work situation with unclear priorities, everything else kinda falls apart. No one knows who does what, what comes first, or who’s on third. It’s a total friggin mess and most people have lived it at least once. Unfortunately for me, I’ve lived it probably 112 times. I’m also in therapy.

The only way to do professional boundaries properly in a job sense (i.e. a professional sense) is to have some concept of priority management. Namely:

  • What’s important?
  • Why is it important?
  • How often will ‘what’s important’ change?
  • Who is allowed to change the idea of what’s important?

Most organizations don’t think about these concepts and just rush headlong into tasks, projects, and revenue goals. But when processes around a simple question like “How often will we change what’s important?” aren’t defined, everything becomes a cluster-wreck within 2–3 weeks. Suddenly Middle Manager A is chasing Target B, Middle Manager B is chasing Target A, and Middle Manager C has been out to lunch at the bar for the past five hours. Meanwhile, Middle Manager D wants to Chase Target A, so he’s gonna go yell at Middle Manager B and say he “owns that process.” Middle Manager E is chasing Target Z — no one even knows what the hell that is — and all the people who work for these five middle managers are wondering what exactly they’re supposed to be doing. In the course of waiting to find out, they’ll surf Facebook and a few other sites for a few hours.

This happens every day in cubicle worlds. SVPs rush by bellowing about their Q2 call with China and assume all the worker bees are grinding away. In reality, the worker bees are grinding away … on BuzzFeed, because they have no sense what their priority alignment is. So it’s either “Every project has a massive sense of urgency!” or “I dunno, here’s some no-ROI thing I’ll assign you so you stop asking me what’s next.”

In reality, this is where professional boundaries fall apart. Lack of priority drives all of it. Why are you getting an e-mail at 11:03 pm? There are two basic reasons:

  • Your boss wants you to know he/she is a grinder and expects you to be
  • Your boss needed that far into the day to determine what actually mattered — and oh, now a new day is beginning, so…

Professional boundaries. It’s the era that we live in now, for sure, but in most places we’re doing it wrong. We’re using the concept to protect the already-influential — “You can’t possibly get time with him!” — and run our execution-level employees around in circles on unclear priorities.

What else have you observed about professional boundaries at work?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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