Boundaries, Expectations and Accountability

Accountability often sounds negative. To many being held accountable means they’ve made a mistake, and to hold someone else accountable can often lead to stress or even conflict.

This is because the process of accountability is often mishandled – and it starts with our boundaries and expectations.


Boundaries are often seen to be limitations, and in some ways this is true, in our social lives’ boundaries serve as the limits of what we consider to be acceptable behaviour. Our boundaries are determined by our values and needs, but unless they are clearly defined people won’t know how to respectfully engage with us.

The most important step in setting boundaries is to recognise them.

  • What are your boundaries?
  • Why do they exist?
  • What forms do they take?
  • Which boundaries are flexible?
  • What do they apply to?
  • Do they have any exceptions?

Note that boundaries take different forms, a few examples are:

  • Emotional boundaries are set and affected by our personal lives.
  • Workload boundaries are affected by, as the name suggests, our workload and how much more work we can take on at any given time.
  • Communication boundaries are all about what we communicate, when we communicate it and how we choose to do so. Some people prefer regular meetings, others may prefer a digital spreadsheet or task management system, ensuring that everyone knows what everyone else’s progress on a given task is without the need to call a meeting.

Because our boundaries are internal they tend to be consistent across the board (in both our home and work lives, though there may be some variation) and, importantly, they are under our control. We can choose which boundaries apply where and to what extent, meaning we can decide how much or how little to modify a boundary to match a situation.

It is this internal nature that sometimes leads to conflict, being that others can’t know what your boundaries are if you haven’t communicated them.


Expectations, on the other hand, are quite different. Where boundaries are almost entirely internal, our expectations begin internally and are expressed externally. This paradigm means that while our expectations of others make perfect sense to us, and may even seem implicit, they might not line up with what others understand them to be, much less with what they are willing to give or do. For example, some people expect rigorous punctuality where others don’t mind a few minutes delay.

Expectations focus on the behaviours and actions of others, this, in and of itself, is in conflict with the fact that other people have their own boundaries, expectations, and, importantly, free will.

In the above example, you cannot control the outcome (when or if the task is completed), only the person who is accountable for that task can control that, meaning it lies within their boundaries – and they have the free will to decide whether or not they can complete the task by the due date.

These expectations are task-based and therefore need to be specific, they have to be laid out, explained and discussed in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page and in agreement – such as briefs, relaying business strategy, planning, task management, workflows, etc.

What all this means is that our expectations interact directly with others’ boundaries, and that the two are likely to clash when they haven’t been clearly defined and explained.

Therefore, when managers allocate tasks, the work will need to be reviewed and for deadlines to be agreed upon by both parties in order to ensure that expectations are matched and boundaries are respected.

Accountability has two support structures, boundaries and expectations. Without clear understanding of both there can be no shared understanding of any given task.