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3.0 Boundaries are Essential for Us to Flourish

3.0 Boundaries are Essential for Us to Flourish
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Great athletes, musicians, and writers may be born with intrinsic talent, but it is their discipline to honor and nurture that talent that sets them apart. They understand there are boundaries that, when honored, enable them to perform at their highest level. Recent books like Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell support this contention that there is much, much, more to greatness than talent, knowledge, and skill. Understanding the principles that enable you to capitalize on your natural gifts is the differentiator. For us to be at our best as an organization, we need to honor the boundaries that complement our ability to collectively operate in the most natural and effective manner.

The Psychological Basis for the Importance of Clear Boundaries

A Team in Crisis

The critical role of boundaries in the success of an organization surfaced as a component of The Foundation of Greatness in 1984. I was Chief Operating Officer for Michigan Football when Head Coach Bo Schembechler shared his frustration over the team’s 6-6 record for the just-ended season. “You have got to help me understand what we are doing wrong! We are not going to work 92 hours a week to go 6-6—we will find something else to do!” Bo had thought the root of the problem was a lack of discipline, indicated by the unacceptable social behaviors some members of the team were engaging in. He developed rules to cover every conceivable type of transgression, but here was one big problem: how could we possibly track compliance? Needless to say, the desired outcome did not occur. We then turned to a child psychologist, who explained the basic need for all of us to have boundaries.

The Failure of Unenforceable Boundaries

The psychologist explained that boundaries are critical for our growth and development. Creativity, security, and comfort thrive inside the boundaries, while conflict, anxiety, and insecurity reside outside the boundaries. Our need for boundaries begins in babyhood, as we encounter gates that prevent our falling down stairs and cabinets locked to block our access to harmful substances. The need for understanding boundaries continues as we grow up. We learn early on what security feels like, and test for boundaries and challenge rules, to find where safety resides the rest of our lives.

With the football team, we had created a no-win situation by creating unenforceable rules/boundaries. Of course, these young men would test the boundaries, but when no consequences ensued, they would feel conflicted and confused, with a reduced sense of security. Why was a boundary set, but then no one cared to enforce it? The psychologist explained that a mind in conflict like that can focus on the task when engaged and on the job, but it checks out as soon as possible to escape the conflict. As the players violated boundaries they did not understand, they may have asked themselves questions like:

  • If Bo Is a man of his word, why doesn’t he do something about my violation of the rules?
  • I am confused: How do I know when he really means what he says?
  • Could it be me? if I were a better player, would he pay more attention to me? I am not valued: he must not love, respect, or even care about me . . . I am the problem!

The Power of Four to Five Principles (not more)

The psychologist suggested that leaders need a few principles—four or five, no more—that the organization stands for, at all times. Four or five principles is about the most human beings can remember. Furthermore, going beyond that number dilutes your identity. The psychologist said, “Four or five work, because you can read them on their forehead—either they have them or they do not, and you can see if they are a fit.”

The University of Michigan Football Team staff developed principles we stood for. One principle was Caring, which we felt we had not been honoring as well as we could. Following the Spring Game, to let the team know we did care about them, we started a players’ golf tournament in which a player’s foursome was paired with a staff member. The connections made playing a round of golf and having dinner with each other changed the environment overnight. There was a lot of fun, laughing, and caring demonstrated in the interaction with the players. There was a deeper and closer connection we built with the players from that day on, and we never had another 6-6 season.

Boundaries and the Growth of Music

During the medieval period, there was great demand for music being composed throughout Europe; the field was ripe for the development of a written form of musical notation. Some argued that, instead of the sporadic, listen/play transmission taking place at that time, documenting notes would perpetuate the songs more consistently. But others feared the restriction that standardization might entail: Would it inhibit creativity? Would the boundaries stifle growth and new ways to create music?

Once musical notes became standardized, the fears proved unfounded: the proliferation of new music was unprecedented, illustrating the power of boundaries in enhancing creativity.

This post is part of series drawn from Fritz Seyferth’s upcoming book on the Foundation of Greatness.