Holsteins and Holding Boundaries

Dairy cows give about eight gallons of rich milk a day if they are fed, watered and kept in a low-stress environment. But with cows, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Cattle seem “hard-wired” to test fences, seek the weak spots and exploit them to escape to new and exciting pastures.

However, for milk-producing dairy cows, another consequence of weak fences exists besides breaking out. Besides endangering the cows and driving the farmer crazy, weak fences actually decrease the cow’s milk production!

Dairy farmers will tell you that if a cow habitually walks along the fence, testing it and looking for gaps, they simply cannot relax enough to produce an adequate supply of milk. Day after day, as they push, press or jump those poor boundaries, they simply don’t make enough milk to earn their keep. Interestingly, even a small weakness will be exploited by the bovines. Huge rifts are not required. Small gaps are enough.

If, however, the farmer strengthens the fences and builds a solid, strong and high barrier, the cows will gradually give up the quest to crush the wall. And when the cows aren’t as anxious to breach the boundaries, they are able to relax and give the milk they are bred to produce. It’s as if they say to themselves, “Well, if these fences are strong enough to keep me in, then they must be strong enough to keep the predators out. I’m safe. I can relax at last.”

Boundaries work much the same way in human interaction. If businesses, families, communities and even nations have clear, firm boundaries, it creates safety and calm so people can be productive. When people have questions, doubts or fears about organizational boundaries, production decreases.

By having clear policies that are enforced with compassion, leaders will find that “boundary issues” diminish to manageable levels. But inconsistent, arbitrary  decisions based on the moods or preferences of the leader simply invites a barrage of testing and “pushback” from their followers. Unfortunately, many leaders are hesitant to establish a consistent  record of policy application at the beginning, and so spend enormous amounts of time trying shore up the breaches later.

My daughter attended two different charter schools with different dress codes. One charter school tried to be “family friendly” by giving too much latitude to kids that hated rules. This school required “khaki”, black or navy pants. Jean type material was not permitted. No rivets. No top stitching. No “skinny” pants. No lace. No shorts, etc. For every one of these unclear boundaries, parents and kids were confused and continually testing and questioning them. Feelings were hurt when one student “got away” with a violation while another student was reprimanded because her teacher was stricter. What a mess! What a blight on school morale.

Contrast that with another charter school my daughter attended. Its boundaries were clear and simple: “Buy this model uniform from the authorized provider.” The end. Super clear and firm and it allowed everyone to get on to producing a great school environment and academic success.

So, take a lesson from the cows: Keep your boundaries clear, simple and firm, and your people will produce better and so will you.


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