An important aspect of Social Awareness for project managers is the concept of emotional boundaries. What is an emotional boundary? An emotional boundary is where one person’s emotions leave off and anther’s begin. Think about the following quote for a moment:
"Good fences make good neighbors."
It is pretty easy for us to understand the concept of a physical boundary like a fence. What about boundaries that are less visible? For example, how close can you comfortably stand next to another person? Three feet apart? Two feet apart? What about in an elevator? What about in an elevator that is really crowded? Have you ever noticed how people in a crowded elevator will continually try to adjust their position so that they maximize their own personal space? They will automatically move apart from each other as the elevator clears out.
Emotional boundaries are even more difficult to discern, and that makes them harder to navigate. We previously discussed empathy and the need for project managers to be able to recognize and feel the emotions of others. However, empathy does not mean we should take on the emotions of others. As project managers, we need to recognize that we are separate and distinct from others. We need to be responsible for our own emotions and let others be responsible for theirs.
How do you know when there are issues with emotional boundaries? Have you ever heard anyone say that they "were in a good mood until you ruined it"? They are implying that their mood was affected by you. Or consider a situation where you are in a meeting and someone gathers their stuff and walks out abruptly. Have you ever looked around at the others in the room and said, "was that me or was that him?".
Here are some warning signs of individuals with emotional boundary issues:
- Moods & Feelings – Individuals may take on the moods and feelings of others. This is different than empathy which is the ability to understand the moods and feelings of others. Individuals with boundary issues will become more vested in the moods and feelings of others and lose themselves. As my mentor Rich says, they need to "take someone else’s temperature to see how they are feeling". They may also become so bothered by the moods and feelings of others that they try to "fix" the other so that they can feel better.
- Pleasing Others – Those with boundary issues will sacrifice themselves to please others. This could mean forgoing their choices or needs or it could become victim-like (see next item).
As an example, consider when you have a small group going out to lunch or making some other group choice. Some individuals will go along with a choice they did not want (and may even hate) just to fit in and please others.
- Victim-like Behavior – Pleasing others can be taken to the extreme of becoming a victim. Individuals with boundary issues often find that to please others they feel that they cannot say no. They end up feeling victimized by others. The reality is that they allow others to take advantage of them.
- Cannot Express Wants and Needs – Though they cannot (or will not) express what they want and need, they believe others should anticipate those unstated wants and needs and fulfill them.
In our next post, we will look at some ways of developing or improving our emotional boundaries as well as resources for more information on emotional boundaries.