Last week, Apple posted a public apology for allowing contractors to listen to recordings gathered from Siri, the company's popular digital assistant. This would be disappointing enough, but Apple is just the latest business in line to admit to practices that raise privacy concerns-;Amazon, Google and Facebook all have come under scrutiny for its use of digital recordings.

But amid all the legitimate talk of privacy and customer relationship worries, there's an additional, broader lesson about setting limits.

People have a natural inclination to look for and test boundaries. A little child who has been told not to set one foot in a room, for instance, can test that boundary by sprawling down across the doorway so everything but his feet are in the room. This inclination helps people make some sense of the world and develop firm patterns of behavior over time-;if the boundary stays static, you learn where to stop pushing.

But in business today, often, the boundaries are being established on the fly as we go. Companies routinely don't really know for sure what they can and can't get away with or will get disciplined for. And so while there are some ethical questions wrapped up in it when leaders make some poor judgments, and while leaders absolutely need to take responsibility for what they do, we also need to understand that it's natural for them to be looking for both positive and negative feedback. And arguably, it's significantly harder to think through the ramifications of what leaders are doing objectively when herd mentality takes over. So while the behavior might be disappointing, it shouldn't surprise--repeat offenses by different companies are simply leaders trying to see how far the rules apply, and in what specific contexts.

On the one hand, this means that, just as in parenting, consistency in enforcing a business regulation or rule-;whether the enforcement comes from you, your customers or lawmakers-;is absolutely paramount. Without that consistency, workers and other leaders don't have a clear sense of where to stop, and they'll continue to test you to find out what the limit actually is. No matter the size of your enterprise or how exhausted you are, there's no room to be wishy washy about disciplining on a fair rule, and you have to be absolutely clear about making sure others know the rule is active.

But there's a positive side to the fact that people will assume they can until they're told differently, too. If you reduce the number of rules that constrict creative processes, keeping reasonable guidelines in place for ethics and safety, people can become inspired to see incredibly unique solutions that abandon traditional, ineffective ways of thinking.

As a classic example, imagine two lines of coins. The vertical line contains four quarters. The horizontal line intersects the vertical line, forming a cross, and has three quarters. Your job is to make both lines add up to $1.00 by moving just one quarter.

Now, most people would start off by limiting themselves and think, "OK, everything has to stay on one layer, because that's how it is laid out." But the solution is simple-;take the fourth quarter at the bottom of the vertical line and stack it on the center of the "cross". If you couldn't discover that answer, it's because you set the boundary for yourself.

So the bottom line is, leadership requires a delicate balance when it comes to boundaries. There needs to be few enough lines that people can think like kids and not let biases and constraints get in the way. But there needs to be enough boundaries, enforced properly, that people also don't question what is moral or moral, and that they can trust each other and stay mentally and physically well. Your boundary map might look different depending on your industry, and it might adjust as you learn and get better, but don't skip making one.

Published on: Sep 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.