Successful work relationships make a good job great, and a bad job tolerable.
Unfortunately, overstepping boundaries, even unintentionally, is all too common in the workplace. And, it’s a real relationship killer. This is because all successful work relationships are anchored in clearly defined and well-maintained professional boundaries. As such, they’re critical to both effective engagement and job satisfaction.
Therefore, take a closer look at your work engagement. Do you know what your boundaries are? And, how well do you manage them?
Notice how they differ across your interactions with supervisors, colleagues, direct reports, and others. In addition, note how rigid or flexible they are. For example, are your boundaries around time firm with respect to your direct reports, but weak when you relate to your colleagues?
Finally, assess whether you could be overstepping the boundaries of others.
Start With What Is a Boundary
A simple definition of boundaries is they act as “… an invisible line that defines acceptable behavior…” (Wellness Center, University of Illinois, Chicago). Consequently, they shape the scope and content of engagement creating the foundation from which interactions form, grow, solidify, and evolve anew.
It’s important to note that whether you’re cognizant of them or not, all your professional relationships have boundaries. And, if you’re like most people, you might pay little attention to them until there’s a serious transgression.
Ways to Identify Your Boundaries
It’s up to you to own the position and the role you play in building work relationships. Don’t hand the reins over to someone else, or rely on some external influence such as social media or popular culture to set the norms.
You can start by using some basic ways to get clear on what your true boundaries are and then effectively manage them.
Words That Signal Boundaries
Typically words such as like, want, need, and dislike point to a boundary. In fact, each word implies a slightly different degree of flexibility. Needs are rigid. Wants, like desires, are somewhat elastic. Finally, likes are the most negotiable. So, for example, do you like to set workflow benchmarks or do you absolutely need them?
Don’t worry about the word choice here. You might interpret them a bit differently. If so, develop your own lexicon and monitor how you speak about your expectations for collaboration. In addition, explore your pliability of these expectations: with whom and if your preference is flexible.
Beliefs Demarcate Boundaries
Beliefs are thoughts or groups of thoughts that you hold to be true. As such, boundaries that stem from these beliefs will tend to be more rigid. However, while your beliefs might feel like absolute truths, you’ve likely encountered others who’ve challenged them. This is part of what makes people different, interesting, and, at times, difficult to work with.
Similarly, your beliefs can impinge on others. Fortunately, with a bit of constructive thought work that challenges the veracity of your beliefs and expands your perspective, you’ll see that your beliefs are not always unequivocal. The process will also illuminate the degree of flexibility with your boundaries associated with those beliefs.
To identify boundaries derived from beliefs and most relevant to the workplace, survey your beliefs about:
- what is professional vs personal behavior,
- how people can best work together and get a task done, and
- what’s your measure of success.
Additional areas to explore are time use, timeliness, trust, and preferred communication styles.
Do thought work. Ask yourself if you have fixed or flexible boundaries related to these and other work-relative topics. If something has pliability, consider in what situations and to what extent you’re willing to negotiate (e.g., how often and under what circumstances will you tolerate tardiness.) Be honest with yourself about these exceptions.
Be transparent with your partner as well. If your boundary is less than rigid, be truthful. Decisions are not necessarily zero-sum games. In addition, if you don’t know, just say so. Give yourself time opportunity to figure it out. This way you can do the work to identify what is authentically right for you.
In addition, if you’re not honest with yourself, you could expose yourself to an endless sequence of boundary infringements. Alternatively, you might set too many fixed boundaries or constantly construct new ones, which will likely lead to discord and dysfunction, and ultimately rupture an important work relationship.
Sense Inside Yourself For What’s Authentic For You
When you rely solely on your thoughts and other people’s ideas and opinions, you ignore your gut feelings and intuition. In fact, you overlook important felt senses within your body-mind, or embodied mind. These inner sensations, and the personal experiential wisdom they hold, are important to boundary construction as well. They reveal what you uniquely and authentically feel.
You can remedy this classic western-culture habit of thinking your way through an issue, and tapping inside yourself. In so doing, you’ll enable yourself to listen to your greater wisdom and thus gain confident clarity about a situation or choice. In this specific case, about your professional boundaries.
3 Keys to Building Your Professional Relationships
1. Clearly State Your Boundaries
It’s your responsibility to convey what your boundaries are. Don’t assume others know and share your limits. And, if you aren’t clear, you can hardly expect someone else to know what your position is. For example, if you say yes to extra work when you know you’ll struggle and potentially fail to deliver, you’ve transgressed your own boundary. You may have also crossed the trust boundary of the person with whom you made that commitment.
2. Honestly Convey How Rigid or Flexible Your Boundaries Are
Good practice suggests that you clarify your willingness to negotiate boundaries. Flexibility will partly depend on the context — certain conditions and expectations. The relative flexibility (or rigidity) of any boundary reveals a person’s tolerance level associated with a request, challenge, or infringement. By extension, it signals your receptivity to compromise or negotiate should a conflict arise.
3. Respect the Boundaries of Others
Both parties are mutually responsible for compliance and infringements. In addition to knowing and effectively communicating your preferences, learn your colleagues’ boundaries and tolerance levels. Make an honest effort to respect them. As with your limits, don’t assume you know others’ preferences and limits. Instead, ask and be explicit.
Stressing the aspect of flexibility vs rigidity is particularly important for women because, sometimes when they need to assert themselves, they must overcome considerable cultural obstacles. Though at times subtle, customary gender norms, beliefs, and communication styles can impinge on women’s ability to effectively express what is personally essential and authentic to them.
In addition, there are high stakes associated with some office relationships. For example, a woman can feel threatened by a male’s behavior, gestures, or words, especially if that male has some authority over her work and her professional future.
Knowing what your boundaries are and how to authentically and respectfully negotiate them as well as those of your colleagues is fundamental to building enduring productive work relationships. It’s a necessary professional skill.
3. Avoid the Pitfalls of Abitarily Letting Your Boundaries Down
Whatever you do, don’t get into the habit of expressing inauthentic tolerance because you want to be cooperative or nice, or you feel the need to say yes.
Furthermore, make sure you don’t drop important boundaries with personal rationalizations (e.g., agreeing to take the meeting notes once again, because you like having your own set of notes anyway or bypassing your turn to be the meeting chair because the guys do all the talking anyway). This is particularly pertinent to women.
Don’t forget. it’s hard going and less fulfilling to live and work within the confines of someone else’s boundaries and feel that the only way you can realize your aspirations and be who want to be is to either fight and risk it all or comply.
Articulate, and Defend Your Boundaries
It’s one thing to define a boundary and another to communicate what it is, especially if the circumstances when you need to declare them are fraught.
To avoid this situation, articulate your boundaries for yourself and be prepared to communicate them to others. Consider if and when you would declare an ultimatum. And, be mindful, it’s not going to be just about what you might lose, but also what you might gain.
Although it might sound hokey, reading up on communication styles, collaborative language, non-violent communication, and negotiation skills can help you avoid unnecessary turbulence. It can also, facilitate a flow toward a mutually comfortable and acceptable enduring solution. Holding your ground, yet keeping your composure, keeps you in good standing and could draw favor from your superiors.
Boundaries May Change and Relationships Can Adjust
Relationships are not static. Your or others’ boundaries could shift over time. These changes can arise because of direct interaction or due to factors outside of a specific work relationship. For example, one of your colleagues constantly fails to respect deadlines, putting pressure on you, your time, and your general willingness to pick up the slack from time to time for colleagues who may request your help. In other words, one’s person’s transgression forces you to rein in your boundaries related to generosity and helping others.
The time and effort you dedicate to exploring your boundaries will ground you and offer important benefits when you assess or negotiate your relationships as they progress and/or the stakes rise. In the case above, clarity around deadlines boundaries can help you better manage the transgressor and free your time up so that you can be more considerate of other colleagues and potentially strengthen those relationships.
In this way, you’ll enable yourself to strategically employ and negotiate professional boundaries to create productive and satisfying engagements and a healthy work environment.