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Don’t Fence Me In – And Don’t Fence Me Out

May 3, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

Did you ever think you could possibly be so impacted by something as small as contaminated meat in a Chinese marketplace? And did you ever dream that your open world could so quickly close down? Did you ever think a simple hug could be so deadly?

We have always lived in the paradox of wanting our freedom and individuality (self- determination) and craving relationships and the support of others. We go back and forth between “don’t fence me in” and “don’t fence me out” to varying degrees, but back and forth regardless. This whole pandemic experience is putting this paradox (contradictory desires and qualities) right in our faces (thank you Zoom), and it’s a great lesson for each of us as leaders.

Lesson #1Fences, or boundaries, give us our identity. We create ourselves by setting boundaries that protect and distinguish ourselves from others. This occurs as we exercise our freedom of thought, activity and creativity. We each decide what we notice, what has value and meaning, what is a threat, what we will allow and do, and what our reactions will be. Frank Sinatra’s song, I Did It My Way, is a great example of living out of this inward desire.

But, think back to your biology lessons about living systems (calm down – we didn’t say go back – we said think back). While, life cannot be sustained without a boundary (or membrane) that preserves itself, this boundary must be semipermeable – it allows certain things to pass through. This back-and-forth of taking in and sending out information and energy allows the living system (of which we are one) to adapt, improve, grow and sustain itself (Wheatley, 2017). This brings us to the next lesson.

Lesson #2When boundaries are too rigid, we become unhealthy and die. When we push back too hard (live in self-preservation mode), or isolate ourselves too much (become the hermit), or let too much in (not just the good, but the bad and the ugly), our overall health and stability becomes impaired. We lose the insights and capabilities needed to adapt and thrive. We need to interact with others in healthy ways. Psychologist Frank McAndrew (2016) tells us “We are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress.” We need emotional support and friendship to keep our anxiety at bay and help us cope. Quite frankly – we need laughter, and who best to do that with than your friends! Think about Tom Hanks in Castaway as he became more and more attached to his friend “Wilson” during his isolation at sea.

We need to figure out how to be together in ways that also support ourselves. If there’s one thing this pandemic is teaching us, it is this. It means we are aware of our neighbors and co-workers and the conditions they find themselves in. It means we are not giving in to our own greed and other selfish desires that put others at risk. And it also means that we are not passively acquiescing to someone else’s demands without thought for our own health and safety. We realize that what we do impacts others -- in the workplace, in our grocery stores (stop hoarding the toilet paper – others just might be running out about now!), in our homes, and even in countries around the globe. We are learning the importance of interacting in ways that promote cooperation over time.

We live more purposefully when we set boundaries that help us:

- Keep things that will nurture us inside our internal fence

- Keep things that will harm us outside this fence.

--Stupid Gone Viral – When Science and Reality Collide

Lesson #3Base your leadership on purpose, not compliance or politics. Healthy leadership requires honoring both independence and connectedness in the workplace. Leaders can create cultures that thrive in this paradox, but it requires a galvanizing purpose that is shared by the team.

We too often see organizations that focus on policies and directives which prescribe behaviors and beliefs that come down from the top, often resulting in the perception that senior leadership has the answers (oh yeah – cuz they know how to fix it!) and the rest of the team needs to simply comply. This approach crushes our independent spirit.

Other organizations lead by bending to the political influences within and around them. They react more vigorously to individual preferences and power than to the objective facts, making decisions that appeal to emotion or personal beliefs. This results in confusion, polarization, conflict, disengagement and eventually – those stupid-gone-viral moments! It crushes our ability to connect in meaningful ways.

Leading from a shared purpose attracts individuals. It provides direction and stability in times of chaos. It calls us together but does not require that we bury our uniqueness. Instead, it centers us on what is important – what we need to do together. Leaders and members organize around this identity of purpose, working on common goals and interests. People are more willing to take risks and contribute their unique talents. Ambiguity is reduced. Leaders are able to set direction and goals that are anchored in purpose, making it easier to anticipate and hold one another accountable for decisions and actions. Energy is focused rather than distracted by warring agendas, self-protective behaviors, blame and fear. Is there a silver-lining in all this? If positive change occurs, then you bet there is!

The shared purpose of surviving in a pandemic has galvanized many teams over the last several weeks. People have pulled together to contribute in ways they never dreamed of before (surprised yourself – didn’t you)! In time, the purpose may change. But, the need for clarity around a shared purpose will not – in fact, it becomes an imperative as we harness the energy and diverse contributions of the team for the next leg of the journey.

Titter Time: the fence

You must have been going very fast. “I was, until I hit the fence.”

-- Anthony Horowitz


McAndrew, F. (2016). The perils of social isolation. Psychology Today. Accessed 5/1/2020 at

Scott, K., Sarikas, B. & Bessler, C. (2020). Stupid Gone Viral – When Science and Reality Collide. Great Britain: ReThink Press.

Wheaton, M. (2017). Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

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