“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”  ~ Brené Brown

Recently, I have noticed an uptick in staff and managers sharing concerns and experiences, which reveal a lack of healthy boundaries. For instance: 

  • not speaking up when treated badly, 
  • feeling underappreciated and taken for granted, 
  • trying to please everyone around them, 
  • feeling disrespected, 
  • experiencing unhealthy stress, 
  • oversharing personal details, 
  • being passive aggressive, 
  • feeling annoyed or resentful most of the time, or
  • feeling patronized.

We all navigate a variety of relationships and situations in the workplace. Establishing boundaries ensures everyone is aware of what you consider acceptable. While individuals can establish their own personal boundaries, organizations, managers, and leaders set forth boundaries for the workplace. It is a skill worth mastering.  

Workplace boundaries are important because they create a safe, supportive, and conducive working environment for everyone. They are the physical, emotional, and mental limits you create to protect yourself from over-committing, being used or behaving in unethical or inappropriate ways. For purposes of this post, I created three categories of workplace boundaries that surface most often: 1) personal/professional relationships, 2) time/space/possessions, and 3) behavior/interpersonal.   

CategoryExamples of boundariesExamples of potential violations
Personal/professional relationships ~Remaining professional with coworkers, even if some of them are good friends — this may mean handshakes over hugs at work
~Determining what topics are off limits (e.g., weekend plans, politics, religion, sexual interactions, personal relationships)
~Sharing too much information (this may vary among individuals)
~Asking questions beyond the scope of a professional relationship
~Personal rants
~Dominating conversation
~Expecting emotional therapy from colleagues 
Time/space/possessions~Be on time for meetings
~Start and end meetings on time
~Saying no to work on the weekends
~Using out of office replies while on vacation
~Closing your office door when you need time to focus
~Standing at a comfortable distance
~Asking permission before opening a colleague’s draw or borrowing their stapler
~Not sending emails, or expecting to receive emails, outside of work hours
~Arriving late to meetings
~Keeping people longer than stated 
~Not honoring time away by expecting work done while out of the office
~Not honoring time reserved for focused work
~Physical touching
~Speaking too closely
~Touching or borrowing other’s personal possessions without express permission
~Sending or expecting to receive emails outside of work hours
Behavior/interpersonal~Maintain civility throughout all workplace relationships
~Do not embarrass or criticize partners or coworkers in the presence of others
~Will not interrupt others or hold sidebar conversations during meetings or presentations
~Offer undivided attention during 1:1 conversation
~Provide feedback in constructive manner, not using shameful language or tactics
~Gossip Foul language 
~Negative tone
~Sarcasm
~Berating
~Raising voice 
~Disrespectful body language (e.g., rolling eyes, middle finger, crossing arms in a huff, etc.)

The important part is intentionality. Determine what your boundaries are, clearly and explicitly share them, have a plan to enforce them when they are inevitably crossed, and take time to reevaluate them from time to time. Boundaries are not set in stone. They are more akin to a line in the sand and may change. 

  • Establish – To establish your boundaries you need to identify your values, priorities, and needs. What are your non-negotiables and why?
  • Share – Explicitly and clearly communicate your limits and ask others what they need. This requires finding time with others to intentionally discuss boundaries. Perhaps have everyone come to the meeting prepared with a list of their boundaries as outlined in step 1.  
  • Enforce – Have a plan of action for what will happen when the boundaries are crossed. Ideally, address it right away.  
  • Evaluate – What is working well? What is not working well? Are adjustments required? You might consider scheduling time to review this – maybe every six months or a year – with yourself and your team. 

Scenario

You manage a team of twelve. Previously during a team meeting the team established meeting norms. One of your desired boundaries was not interrupting. You explained to the team this boundary is important to you because you not only deem interruption rude, you know from experience that it often suppresses team members from contributing, shuts down ideas, and leaves team members feeling unheard (establish and share). The Team agreed and signed a commitment that among other things, they would not interrupt each other during team meetings (behavioral boundary established). 

During a meeting Pat interrupts Chris (violation). Now what? The goal is to address the boundary violation in the moment because it impacts everyone in the room (enforce). If you decide to speak with Pat privately after the meeting, there are a few discussions that need to take place: First, a conversation with Pat to address the behavior (interrupting). Second, a conversation with Pat to decide how to go back to the group and explain the resolution. Third, a conversation with the group regarding how to address these and other violations in the future.

Recognizing the benefits of workplace boundaries helps everyone understand their importance:  

  • Increases respect – people speak up, share ideas, innovate
  • Establishes standards of behavior – people know what behavior is and is not acceptable – easier to hold others accountable
  • Improves communication – clarifying how and when you communicate fosters positive communication and improves productivity
  • Manages expectations – setting realistic goals and clear performance expectations fosters trust

Keep in mind, people respect those who clearly communicate their boundaries. If you never set boundaries, those who are crossing them never know you’ve become upset. It’s a lose-lose situation. What are your boundaries?

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office