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Protecting your Turf

Revel Gordon

What do you do when a colleague crosses a line into your territory? When you’re left feeling: “What just happened was not OK”?

For senior leaders, the capacity to re-establish boundaries while still building healthy, positive relationships with those around you is a critical skill. Here’s a way to go about it.

Step 1: Notice when your boundaries are being crossed

Most incursions onto a leader’s turf are likely to start with a small incident, not a frontal assault, and so can be easy to dismiss. Sometimes the incursion is conscious, however most often it is simply a failure on the part of the other person to recognise where interpersonal, responsibility or role boundaries lie. When you hear the “What just happened wasn’t OK” voice in your head … pay attention. Here are some common examples:

Your boss asks a question and a colleague jumps in to answer, even though the topic really falls in your area of responsibility.
A peer makes a point in a team meeting that is critical of your area, without having spoken with you about it beforehand.
A direct report consistently fails to follow through on action items you’ve agreed with him or her.

Step 2: Choose not to ignore it. Minor incursions can escalate into major leadership issues.

If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, do something about it. Hoping the problem will go away on its own is likely to make things worse. You are tacitly making something that is not OK, OK. The effect of this is to encourage the colleague in question. In addition, others will notice this weakness in your boundaries and be more inclined to follow suit. You have, in essence, allowed others to re-set your boundaries.

Step 3: Re-establish crossed boundaries quickly, clearly and calmly

Take your colleague aside and, face-to-face, identify what has happened and let him know that it is not OK. This is a delicate balance of situation, relationship, personality, position and so on, so be well prepared first. The underlying message, conveyed with respectful authority, should be ‘these are my boundaries and it is not OK to cross them’. As importantly, ‘I noticed’.

So how best to do this? Stick to clear, specific facts. Stay calm: do not get emotional or angry (especially if the other person does). Stay on message: avoid the conversation moving off on a tangent. Make it quick: have the conversation soon after the situation occurs.

I specified face-to-face. Email or text is our modern default, however these are far less effective than having a simple conversation. It often turns the heat up when you need to do the opposite. Remember, you are stepping in early in order to address a breach before emotions are raised.

Usually one clear, calm conversation will nip the issue in the bud and reset boundaries appropriately. A second conversation may be necessary if the undesired behaviour recurs, however if your approach is right, rarely does a third breach occur.

So let’s reflect.

By recognising and then calmly and effectively dealing with minor incursions into your territory at the time they occur, you avoid allowing them escalate into a major issue. You also earn the respect of colleagues and will likely find the relationship with the person in question actually improves (as you establish clear boundaries around which you can both align).

We are, by and large, social animals with a preference for harmony in our group. Your boss will appreciate their staff holding their rightful own. Your team will see your strength and respect it. Others will see that you are not a ‘push-over’, and so will be less likely to try and impinge on your territory themselves. And above all, you will enjoy the well-earned satisfaction of having re-established your own boundaries in a constructive, positive manner.

What do you do when a colleague crosses a line into your territory? When you’re left feeling: “What just happened was not OK”?

For senior leaders, the capacity to re-establish boundaries while still building healthy, positive relationships with those around you is a critical skill. Here’s a way to go about it.

Step 1: Notice when your boundaries are being crossed

Most incursions onto a leader’s turf are likely to start with a small incident, not a frontal assault, and so can be easy to dismiss. Sometimes the incursion is conscious, however most often it is simply a failure on the part of the other person to recognise where interpersonal, responsibility or role boundaries lie. When you hear the “What just happened wasn’t OK” voice in your head … pay attention. Here are some common examples:

Your boss asks a question and a colleague jumps in to answer, even though the topic really falls in your area of responsibility.
A peer makes a point in a team meeting that is critical of your area, without having spoken with you about it beforehand.
A direct report consistently fails to follow through on action items you’ve agreed with him or her.

Step 2: Choose not to ignore it. Minor incursions can escalate into major leadership issues.

If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, do something about it. Hoping the problem will go away on its own is likely to make things worse. You are tacitly making something that is not OK, OK. The effect of this is to encourage the colleague in question. In addition, others will notice this weakness in your boundaries and be more inclined to follow suit. You have, in essence, allowed others to re-set your boundaries.

Step 3: Re-establish crossed boundaries quickly, clearly and calmly

Take your colleague aside and, face-to-face, identify what has happened and let him know that it is not OK. This is a delicate balance of situation, relationship, personality, position and so on, so be well prepared first. The underlying message, conveyed with respectful authority, should be ‘these are my boundaries and it is not OK to cross them’. As importantly, ‘I noticed’.

So how best to do this? Stick to clear, specific facts. Stay calm: do not get emotional or angry (especially if the other person does). Stay on message: avoid the conversation moving off on a tangent. Make it quick: have the conversation soon after the situation occurs.

I specified face-to-face. Email or text is our modern default, however these are far less effective than having a simple conversation. It often turns the heat up when you need to do the opposite. Remember, you are stepping in early in order to address a breach before emotions are raised.

Usually one clear, calm conversation will nip the issue in the bud and reset boundaries appropriately. A second conversation may be necessary if the undesired behaviour recurs, however if your approach is right, rarely does a third breach occur.

So let’s reflect.

By recognising and then calmly and effectively dealing with minor incursions into your territory at the time they occur, you avoid allowing them escalate into a major issue. You also earn the respect of colleagues and will likely find the relationship with the person in question actually improves (as you establish clear boundaries around which you can both align).

We are, by and large, social animals with a preference for harmony in our group. Your boss will appreciate their staff holding their rightful own. Your team will see your strength and respect it. Others will see that you are not a ‘push-over’, and so will be less likely to try and impinge on your territory themselves. And above all, you will enjoy the well-earned satisfaction of having re-established your own boundaries in a constructive, positive manner.