Boundary Setting at Work

Workplace BoundariesBoundaries are the focus of many of my client coaching conversations. For many individuals, establishing and maintaining appropriate workplace boundaries are a big challenge. Some lack confidence or assertiveness skills to successfully negotiate boundaries while others take on too much responsibility (enabling others to under function) resulting in overwhelm, resentment and stress. Others lack the appropriate interpersonal understanding of courteous and professional standards.

I think of boundaries as limits (or fences)—being able to know where I end (or where my work ends) and the other begins. Being able to set limits, having autonomy, decision making control and determining acceptable and non-acceptable behavior from others involves setting boundaries.

There are two categories of boundaries that matter in the workplace, personal (tied to interpersonal appropriateness) and professional. Professional boundaries determine the limits and responsibilities of those that you interact with in the workplace.

Workplace and team success are intricately tied to boundaries. Team members feel safe and operate more efficiently with each other when roles, tasks, standards of behavior and responsibilities are clearly defined, understood and agreed to by all. I find as an organizational consultant that the fairer and clearer the boundaries are—the better interpersonal relationships and teams operate. There are boundaries to consider whenever you are interacting with someone else or another department. When there is confusion about who has responsibility for what—finger pointing, conflict, accountability and performance issues arise.

When professional boundaries are well established and maintained—tasks and responsibilities are clear and understood thus alleviating redundancy and/or confusion about “whose on first and whose on second?” or “not my job”.

Job descriptions are one form of professional boundary setting but the problem is most are far too general. Few job descriptions clearly define specific tasks, duties and responsibilities (particularly with work being handed off and passed back and forth between departments). Most bosses and team leaders need to spend more time and attention on clarifying acceptable performance standards and task responsibilities.

Here are my coach’s tips around boundary setting:

  • First you need to know your own limits. What can you do well given the amount of time and resources you have been given?
  • Work through your fear of addressing the issue. Being able to work through tough issues successfully generally fosters improved trust in teams and relationships. Don’t be afraid to negotiate boundaries with the boss or coworkers. Start by communicating your intention/desire to produce quality work while identifying what constraints you face given available resources and/or available time. Identify and communicate what you need to be successful. What do you need from others? You likely have information and/or insight they lack. Clue them in on what reality looks like from your vantage. Boundary negotiations often revolve around establishing priorities, “reasonable” expectations and agreed to definition of performance standards.
  • Communicate your abilities respectfully and honestly. Don’t try to pretend you can do something you cannot nor try to be superman/ superwoman! You burning out or feeling resentful isn’t healthy for you or the business. Speak up if you know you have been given an impossible or improbable task with limited odds of success. On the flip side, in this tough economic environment if you are just trying to protect your Internet surfing or slack off time—beware because these days dead wood is being cut!
  • Listen and verify your understanding of the others needs, interests, concerns and feelings. Emotions are often “up” when negotiating boundaries—people often react with fear or anger when they believe their interests are threatened. If you dismiss the other’s emotions you will be fueling them. Instead, try to convey that you “get” them (by the way this doesn’t mean agreeing with them).
  • If you are the boss—it’s your responsibility to define acceptable and non-acceptable behavior for the good of the business and the people in it. There is middle ground in the continuum between having no boundaries (a bad thing) or having boundaries that are so rigid they stifle creativity, morale or a worker’s ability to do their best. There are of course some that should be rigid—stealing, verbal/physical abuse etc.
  • Who else needs to know? Much of workplace confusion and conflict is a result of someone failing to clue others in the organization in on changes in roles, task handoffs or performance criteria/expectations.