On the surface, relationship boundaries may not seem immediately relevant in a professional setting. However, a lack of boundaries is behind many common challenges people face at work. Learning what boundaries are and how to set them in your work relationships is a skill that can greatly improve your effectiveness at work, especially if you are in a leadership position.
Have you experienced any of the following?
- A leader or manager failing to give frequent clear feedback on issues that impact the team.
- Feeling used and unappreciated – being asked to do more than you can realistically accomplish in a given time frame.
- A micro-managing leader or manager who overcontrols work and fails to empower their team.
- One team member picking up the slack of another person, to the point that they are resenting it.
- Missing deadlines, having trouble focusing or being late to meetings because your time is hijacked by other people’s priorities and interruptions.
These situations show up across workplaces and teams everywhere, and usually have unclear boundaries at their source. In fact, most people don’t even know what their boundaries are until they have been crossed.
For example, recently a colleague had a client reschedule or show up late to her appointment three times in a row, and only when she noticed her resentment did she realize that she needed a clear policy around missed sessions or last minute changes. This policy became her boundary. Whenever you notice an uncomfortable feeling in response to someone else’s behavior – it could be a sign that you have a boundary you haven’t yet acknowledged and clearly communicated.
The first step toward communicating boundaries is to make a list of “rules” of engagement. Simply being clear on these rules leads you to naturally communicate them to others. Most of the time when people know your rules, they will follow them. For example, when my colleague included her missed sessions policy in her client agreement, she found that there was very little awkwardness around these issues in the future. Fewer clients made last minute changes, and when they did, she reminded them of her policy. This clarity turned it into a non-issue, with no awkwardness or resentment.
Unfortunately, a common challenge many people have is directly communicating their boundaries without coming off as negative, complaining, unsupportive, or not a team player.
The key to communicating boundaries effectively is to have that mental clarity for yourself, so that in one or two sentences you can clearly make a specific request and share the reason for your request (ie: your commitment to managing your time effectively). If you keep your energy neutral and acknowledge the possible positive intention behind their behavior it reduces the chance of the other person feeling embarrassed. Ideally you want to address issues before you are feeling a lot of anger and resentment about them.
Here are some common examples of sentences you can use in various situations to set boundaries clearly yet kindly, without a lot of drama:
- “In order to manage my own time effectively, I’m going to ask that we start and stop meetings on time. If the meeting gets derailed because people are late, I will still need to leave when our scheduled meeting time is over.”
- “I know you are on a deadline and need this now, but I need time to think about your request so I can provide you with a thoughtful response. Today, I will shuffle things around so that I can allocate 15 minutes to think through this and get back to you in about a half an hour. However, in the future I may not be able to make such a quick change, and I’d appreciate it if you can let me know in advance when you’ll need me to help you get something out the door.”
- That sounded a little judgy – I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way. I’m feeling stressed too – but let’s try to get through this positively together.
The final component of boundary setting is knowing what to do when you’ve made requests for behavior changes, and other people have not changed in response. At this point, you’ll want to have a series of actions planned that effectively deter or modify others’ behavior, but also feel realistic enough for you to take without too much discomfort. In the missed session example, my colleague chose to write her policy in her initial client agreement, then remind her clients of her policy the first time she had an issue, and if it happened again, simply add a missed session charge to their bill without a discussion. This was comfortable for her to do and also seemed clear and fair to her clients. Most importantly, the behaviors did not take a lot of emotional drama or energy – which is key.
It’s important to know that when we feel disrespected, our brain often jumps to extreme solutions, such as “I’m going to have to quit this job”, but those first ideas are often better saved as consequences of last resort. It helps to do a little brainstorming when you are in a calm frame of mind to identify less drastic consequences that are simple but effective.
For example, if a co-worker continues to interrupt you after you’ve asked them several times to change their behavior, you might immediately think you’ll have to talk to their boss. But, you know instinctively that the boss will be irritated with you for not being able to work it out yourself, so that becomes a consequence of last resort. Before going to that extreme there are other quite effective behavior modification techniques you can use. Perhaps you can train that person by only responding to their e-mails, texts and phone calls during a certain time period each day and not during your designated “focus time”. Or maybe your first consequence is to not jump and do what they ask immediately. When they stop by, you might simply say, “I’m working on something urgent but will come over to you in 30 minutes” and follow through on that promise. Once you start brainstorming, you will realize that there are several responses that might work to deter the behavior.
When it comes to developing good boundaries, you can simplify the process by staying focused on three things:
- Get clear on what your boundaries, or respectful rules of engagement, are.
- Practice communicating these rules in a normal tone of voice, without negative energy or an angry edge.
- Brainstorm on consequences you can put into place to slowly train people over time to respect your rules.
Leaders who have strong boundaries at work tend to:
- Develop excellent relationships with their team, empowering them to succeed while providing the support and guidance they need.
- Easily manage their time, completing administrative and project work on time, and rarely leaving people waiting for approvals or responses.
- Run effective meetings that are not only productive, but also start and stop on time.
- Have strong relationships with their peers, working through issues between departments with patience and co-creating win-win solutions to problems.
- Generally enjoy work, because they feel free to completely engage and focus without having to worry about distractions or interruptions.