On Boundaries

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people want boundaries. Oh, sure, we all claim to really want freedom in everything, but how many of us are deadline-driven? I know that I want to know what requirements are so that I can meet them (okay; I actually want to know what they are so that I can exceed them, but this isn’t always the healthiest behavior).

So what’s the deal with geeks and boundaries?

On the one hand, most geeks prefer fewer boundaries. Many of them were the brilliant kids in school who were bored and always making their own intellectual fun. This type of geek will rebel if boundaries are too strict. For example, if you require a certain geek to work from 8:00 AM sharp, take a 30-minute lunch at 12:00 PM, and leave at 5:00 PM unless you have approved his staying later, he will rebel and not work well. His creativity will be completely stifled by what he perceives as your arbitrary boundaries.

On the other hand, geeks still need boundaries in a working environment. Do you want your geek to apply her creativity to your remote access problem? Then assign her the task and discuss your overall goal (e.g., “connections are dropping–help!” or “no one can print,” or “it’s wicked slow.”). Some geeks are very deadline-driven and need a deadline to which to work. Other geeks need to know that you’ll be checking in on the project progress regularly so that they don’t spend too much time playing computer games.

So how do you balance this?

I have two ways of balancing this for my geeks: treat them like adults, and find out what they need.

Is your geek over the age of 18? Then I would suggest treating him like an adult until he proves that he needs to be treated otherwise. Instead of saying, “You must be here by 8:00 AM,” try saying, “The Help Desk phone needs to be covered at 8:00 AM, and I know you’re a morning person. Can you do this for me?” The latter not only gives your geek the feeling of control, but it makes him verbally commit to a boundary, and therefore will be more willing to comply with it.

The second way of balancing boundaries takes quite a bit more work, but is absolutely worth your time. Find out about your geeks and what they need. The only way to do this is to talk to them, ask questions (note: not illegal questions if you’re the manager. Check with your HR department if you’re concerned about this.), and learn by trial and error. When I first became a geek leader, I made the mistake of not setting enough boundaries, which threw my geeks into flux, because they weren’t aware of their requirements. I began to have initial conversations when I assigned projects that would discuss my requirements, our collective timelines, and their necessary resources for completing a project. Once I started this, projects ran much more smoothly, because they knew my requirements, and I knew their regular status.

My final thought on boundaries is that of a “boundary check.” Boundaries should be firm, so that all parties know the defined expectations, but they should also be negotiable. The geek that gets in at 8:00 AM should know that he can approach you if his child care arrangements suddenly have to change. The remote access geek should be able to let you know if the issue is more complex than anticipated and she will need more time or resources.

Overall, boundaries work very well, but only if all parties know where they are. If you treat your geeks like grown-ups, allow them to set boundaries with you, and often check on the boundaries, you will give your geek a framework in which she can use her creativity to your advantage.