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How to Set Professional Fences

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How to Set Professional Fences

Death by a thousand cuts. Now that’s a dramatic way to start a blog post!

But it happens just that way.

You go to work, intending to do your level best at whatever your gig happens to be. Then you run across someone who operates in a fashion that you find despicable.

They behave like their method of operation is the norm. And perhaps it is. Or perhaps they’ve never been set straight by their superiors.

Either way, they affect those around them for the worse.

They gossip about others.

They pit people against each other.

They start or perpetuate rumors.

They cut corners.

They are dishonest.

They breed mistrust.

They cover-up mistakes.

They pee all over everything.

They attempt to pull you into their dysfunction. And that’s when you get cut the first time.

If you don’t find a way to stop it you end up feeling miserable – a thousand cuts later – because you’ve compromised your personal integrity, and just as bad, you’ve become associated with the dysfunction they perpetuated and your reputation and relationships are damaged.

The best way to combat this is by setting a professional fence.

We have set professional fences dozens of times throughout our careers and they are VERY EFFECTIVE.

So what is a professional fence you ask?

It’s kind of like one of those invisible fences people use for their dogs. The dog wears a collar and every time they get too close to the edge of the yard (that’s where the invisible fence is) they get a little shock through the collar. Needless to say, they quickly learn not to cross that invisible boundary.

A professional fence is practically the same thing. It isn’t established to keep anyone in or out, it’s established to let someone know when a line has been crossed.

So back to our example: despicable co-worker (dog) crosses your values boundary and ZAP! You let them know:  That’s not okay and don’t include me.

People are pretty smart (some are even smarter than dogs) and it usually only takes one fence setting incident for them to realize that you’re not going to join them in their dysfunction.

Don’t get us wrong—they won’t like it. And if it’s your boss, well that can be uncomfortable but well worth it.

I hope you don’t have a boss like this, but setting a professional fence with her or him is often the most important fence to set. I’ve set professional fences with a couple of my bosses and one in particular stands out. 

I had assumed management of a new team and was also working for a new boss. His method of operation was to criticize staff, typically behind their backs. In spite of the fact that he was the boss, his insecurity drove him to diminish everyone around him in an attempt to make himself look better. Coming into my job, I didn’t know this.

A few months into my new role I had a meeting with my boss and was discussing one of my staff and some things she was working on from a professional development perspective. Shortly thereafter I heard him criticizing her to another manager. He had twisted what I had discussed with him into something negative. I immediately asked him if his comments were related to the conversation we had earlier in the week. He indicated that they were, at which point I calmly explained to him (in front of the other manager) that he must have misunderstood me because his “interpretation” of what I had said was incorrect. I then clarified the situation with a smile on my face and in a warm manner (even though I was seething inside).

My boss got the message.  

He was not pleased but began to understand that I wasn’t going to play the game by his rules.

From that point forward I vowed never to share anything with him about my staff that he could twist and use against them. I essentially robbed him of the raw materials he needed to manufacture gossip in his factory.

Over time, others began to realize the same thing and set professional fences of their own. His flow of information shut down and his negative impact diminished.

I’ve witnessed Danny set many professional fences. I consider him something of a Professional, Professional Fence Setter. To hear one of his stories, check out our video on setting professional fences. 

If you have comments or questions we’d love to hear from you!

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