Boundaries and Your Brain at Work

Boundaries for LeadersRemember the old saying "Come on, this is not brain surgery"? It was meant to convey the simplicity of an answer or a concept, and often meant to prod people to get off their butts and do what is obvious. That is how it is with a leader's boundaries. It is profoundly simple. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to establish the boundaries that are usually made by a great leader.

But at the same time, underneath it all, it really is brain surgery, because the reason that a leader's boundaries work is that they actually make it possible for people's brains to function as they were designed. Said another way, if you are trying to lead people and do not establish effective boundaries, your people will not be able to do what you need and want them to do because their brains can't work that way. You will build an organization full of geniuses who are producing brain-impaired results.

Why is that? Just like a computer, the brain operates according to certain processes that are hardwired or encoded in the system. Ignore the operating instructions, and the brain flounders. But as a leader, if you understand how the brain works and what will make it function optimally, you can create the right conditions to help your people be at their best, and when they're at their best, the organization thrives and positive results stream in. Show me a person, a team, or a company that gets results, and I will show you the leadership boundaries that make it possible.

So, let's get specific. What are these brain processes that the leader's boundaries enable to work? Neuroscience has shown that when these processes are cultivated and protected–which is exactly what strong boundaries provide–good things happen. Let's start by looking at what brain scientists call the "executive functions" of the brain.

In brain terminology, executive functions are needed to achieve any kind of purposeful activity such as reaching a goal, driving a vision forward, or conquering an objective. The brain relies on three essential processes:

  1. Attention: the ability to focus on relevant stimuli, and block out what is not relevant: "Pay attention!"
  2. Inhibition: the ability to "not do" certain actions that could be distracting, irrelevant, or even destructive: "Don't do that!"
  3. Working Memory: the ability to retain and access relevant information for reasoning, decision making, and taking future actions: "Remember and build on relevant information."

In other words, our brains need to be able to: (1.) focus on something specific, (2.) not get off track by focusing on or being assaulted by other data inputs or toxicity, and (3.) continuously be aware of relevant information at all times.

Here is a little more brain science for you. When those three processes of the brain are activated, results happen because they enable the next level of the brain's executive capacities, which are the ones you really want to have activated in your organization. It's the brain on steroids, so to speak. If executive functions of the brain are working well, and people are structured enough to focus, inhibit, and be conscious of what is important, they can execute the following list of behaviors, which actually are involved in producing results:

  • Goal Selection
  • Planning and Organization
  • Initiation and Persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Execution and Goal Attainment
  • Self-regulation:

If you look at this list, it is not a leap to see your team or organization becoming one big brain, figuring out what is important, what is not, and getting it done through goals, plans, persistence, adaptability, flexibility, execution, and good self-management.


Discover more ground-breaking principles to transform your leadership and workplace culture from Dr. Henry Cloud with Boundaries for Leaders.

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