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The One-Foot Fence

Many years ago, I worked as a staff assistant for a world-famous linguist. I remember that whenever someone asked him for something, he gave an interesting response. Afterwards, I asked him about it and he explained the principle of the “one-foot fence” to me. In the decades since, I have used the one-foot fence almost every month.

A “one-foot fence” is when you give someone something to do to assess their engagement and commitment. For example, when a student approaches me after class to ask for the PowerPoint slides I used, I reply with, “Sure, just shoot me an email and I’ll send them to you.” In my experience, people will only follow this up just 10-25% of the time.


The one-foot fence is helpful for several reasons. First, it ensures that people are more committed to their work than I am. We will not empower others by doing things for them that they do not really care about. Finally, I have an endless list of tactical and practical things to do. It is not a good use of my time to chase down something that the person will forget about in 24 hours.


A one-foot fence places a small obstacle in front of people that they can easily overcome if they want to. For example, if a student or leader asks me what book recommendations, I tell them that they can email me their request or go to site, site. Either of these can be done in less than five minutes. These are not six-foot fences that would be difficult for anyone to climb over. Imagine if I were on a plane and my seatmate asked for some suggested reading. It would be very challenging to track down my contact information. I want to help, I just don’t want to take responsibility for someone else’s request.


​As with everything I write, I hope that you can use this in both your personal life and your professional life. If you are a parent and your child asks you to throw a baseball in the backyard. You could say, “Sure, go get the baseball and mitts and then come and get me.” However, while this strategy works well with children, teens, and young adult children, be careful when using the one-foot fence with other loved ones so that your family doesn’t think you are a jerk.

Professionally, a one-foot fence can work well with direct reports and others. When a colleague wants your help on something, invite them to stop by your office at a time of your choosing. Sometimes, when I am working with someone, they will ask me if they can come by and talk about professional development. While this is a topic I am passionate about, I might ask them to read John Kotter’s great HBR article, “What Leaders Really Do” and then email me for a time to get together. Only about one in four people will follow through on this. I actually wish that everyone followed through and contacted me. However, the reality is that people are busy and a small assignment will cause some of the them to let it go.

Give the one-foot fence a try and see if it can help you as you empower those around you.


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