Watch The Cliff! How To Set Guardrails At Work To Reduce Stress

Darren Kanthal
4 min readNov 21, 2023

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Let’s say you’re driving on a single-lane road up a mountain pass. On either side of your car is a sheer cliff — if you veered off to one side or the other, you’d drive off the mountain.

Protecting you are the metal guardrails. They provide safety. They let you know how far from this side or that side you can veer before hitting the guardrails — and driving through them.

This is a story I tell many of my clients, and relate it to their jobs. All too often, it’s like they’re driving on that mountain pass without those guardrails. They have to assume what the boundaries are.

Usually they don’t really know how far they can veer from one side to the next without going over the edge. For my clients, we coach the importance of identifying and emphasizing the guardrails on a regular basis with their direct reports. They also take the onus to further define their own guardrails with their leader.

Let me give you a bit more context with a story…watch below.

The problem, as I most often see it — is that some companies and some leaders don’t want to take the time to do the foundational work. They most often feel or communicate that their team should “just know what’s expected of them.” Then, undoubtedly, this thick-headed and uncooperative approach bites everyone in the tush!

The point of the guardrails is to keep us safe. Not only are we kept safe on the road while driving over the mountain pass, but our loved ones feel a sense of safety that those guardrails are keeping us on the road — and that we’ll be home for dinner.

The same applies to the workplace.

Guardrails in the Workplace Can Free Your Mind

If you don’t know the guardrails of your job — you’re left wondering:

“Should I do this thing or that?”

“Am I authorized to take this action or make this decision?”

“Do I or should I ask my leader for permission — or do I inform them after the fact?”

If you don’t have answers to these questions — how can you take decisive actions without second-guessing, wasting valuable time and energy with internal debate, and living with stress and anxiety about what you should or shouldn’t do?

When your leader provides the boundaries of your role — not only do you have safety and security by generally knowing your parameters, but your leader and your team have that same general level of safety and knowing.

If they know you take care of this aspect of your collective work, projects, and initiatives, and at this particular juncture, you’ll hand it off to them — isn’t it more obvious who is responsible for each piece of the pie?

The point is this — in addition to being happy, we all want to feel safe and secure in life and at work. If our guardrails are undefined or if they’re ever-changing, it’s damn near impossible to be free of mind — free of wondering if I’m doing a good job and what’s expected of me, free of anxiety wondering if my leader is going to slap my hand or worse, fire me, free of replaying conversations and emails as you put your head on the pillow to sleep at night.

Know Your Questions…And Find Your Answers

Leadership requires open communication — candidly and with vulnerability at times. Leaders are required to set the tone for their team, set clear expectations, and provide a healthy balance of praise and constructive criticism when either is warranted. Leaders are expected to step into the discomfort of leading — which isn’t always easy, glamorous, or even fun.

Here are some common guardrails that are lacking. How many of these questions do you have answers to:

  • What are the ‘core business hours’ that you expect me to be online and/or available?
  • What is the expectation to reply to emails or texts outside of regular business hours?
  • What are the quality standards for my work?
  • How do we disagree and debate — without fear of being reprimanded or retaliated against?
  • What is my level of authority and autonomy for decision-making?
  • How do you (my leader) like to be kept updated and informed of progress on my projects?
  • How will you let me know if I’m performing up to your expectations?

These are just a few examples. If none of these resonates with you — search yourself. What questions are outstanding in your head that haven’t been answered? And who is the right person(s) to answer them? Maybe it’s your leader, spouse, sibling, coworker, or colleague.

Guard Your Journey To Create Mental Space

The importance of guardrails cannot be overstated — both at home and at work. When you spot an unidentified guardrail in your life — my challenge to you is to address it. Address it swiftly with respect, dignity, love, and professionalism.

Once you remove the internal chatter about this unanswered question(s) and guardrails — watch how much more brain space you have to be even more creative, successful, and happy.

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Darren Kanthal

Darren is a values-driven leadership and career coach who supports mid-career leaders with transformative career action plans and candid coaching conversations.