Setting boundaries at work has never been more challenging—or necessary. Yet once you accept that boundaries are necessary, it becomes that much easier to uphold them gracefully.
Anybody can do this and everybody should.
Today's post will help you make peace with boundaries, illustrate how boundaries benefit your team, give you specific phrases you can use to establish boundaries, and show you 21 practical ways to start (or continue) setting boundaries at work.
4 ways boundaries at work benefit your team
To set the tone, here's a brief reflection from Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend from their article What Do You Mean "Boundaries"?
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.
More specifically, boundaries at work offer the following benefits:
- Boundaries create a culture of respect. Team members who feel respected and valued are more likely to show respect and appreciation. Before you know it, these become the company standards.
- Boundaries increase engagement. When boundaries are respected—even encouraged—people are empowered and inspired to give their full effort, to do their best work.
- Boundaries encourage open communication. Without boundaries at work, communication goes underground, where it can fester and detract from actual work.
- Boundaries at work prevent burnout. This may be the most important benefit of all. Why? Because burnout leads to disengagement, cynicism, absenteeism, and lost productivity—all things to avoid.
21 ways to set boundaries at work
There are different ways to categorize boundaries. Generally speaking, the ones on this list describe boundaries with self, boundaries with others, and boundaries with time and space.
- Block "you" time at the start of the day. This is one of the most surefire ways to avoid burnout and increase your productivity. One of the purposes of setting boundaries at work is to make sure you're also paying attention to your own needs.
- Take a lunch break. Use this time to do something relaxing, restorative or fun—and of course enjoy your lunch at a leisurely pace. Deliberately slow down. This is your time.
- Close the door to your home workspace. As a friend and former co-worker recently shared, "This weekend I did not allow myself to enter the physical space where I work from home. It was not hard and it was great to be 'out of the office' in every sense of the word." How are you getting regular time to be "out of the office"?
- Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. At the very least, don't let every ping, email, text, etc. disrupt your day. This will be hard at first. But it's worth it.
- Schedule your Big Rocks (Stephen Covey's term for most important commitments). It's easier to stay focused when you've established a goal or mission for your workday.
- Keep confidences. At the same time, don't burden your subordinate, boss or co-worker with a secret. It's setting both of you up for drama.
- Unless it's part of your job description, turn off social media at work. It's not only draining for you, it's draining for those around you.
- Set (reasonable) deadlines. Have you ever had someone on your team tell you "I'll let you know"? That's fine if they actually do. But if you're concerned about not hearing back, or you just don't like being kept in suspense, establish a reasonable deadline up front. This keeps everybody happy and accountable.
- Learn to say no. Not always, and not reflexively. Sometimes it's good to say yes, in the spirit of teamwork. But if your yeses leave you feeling constantly pressured, drained or resentful, that's probably a sign you've been giving too much. In the words of John Maxwell, "When you frequently overcommit; you routinely underperform."
- Offer something else instead. Example: "I won't be available for the conference call on my day off, but would it help if I sent you my thoughts ahead of time?"
- Do a gut check. Boundaries represent a give and take. When someone makes a request, ask yourself, "Would this be helpful or would I simply be reinforcing bad behavior?" Or even better, "How would this look if the roles were reversed?"
- Let the person with the problem own the problem. To quote an old saying, "Be compassionate toward others, but not responsible for them." Resist the urge to own or internalize other people's problems. Better: Focus on handling your own.
- Don't force your team to socialize. Nothing wrong with office socializing. But let it be optional. This is another way to show respect for your team's time and energy.
- Plan your next staycation. Not only does the break from work help you re-engage when you return, you'll find a newfound energy from having the time off to look forward to. I am still reaping the benefits of the week I took off at the start of the month.
- Set your "out of office" message early. If possible, start it the day before you're out, and end it the day after you return. Nothing like a 10pm emergency email the night before a vacation. Set the expectation up front.
- Let "work" friendships find their own level. The person who wants less contact sets the pace.
- Don't overshare. This does not help people in the office "bond;" on the contrary, it can scare some people, not to mention undermine your professional image.
- Return whatever you borrow. On time and in the same condition. Don't be that team member who borrows the boss's office, then leaves the chair readjusted and the phone ringer up.
- Set limits up front. When meeting with a staff member, for example, you can say, "We've got a half-hour today. What would you most like to cover?" I often used a similar approach when I was a career counselor, and students would saunter into my office, late. There was no shaming for being late. The goal was simply to respect "time" boundaries and make the most of the time we had.
- Clean off your desk. This is perhaps a standard as much as a boundary. But there's something rewarding about keeping your workspace relatively clutter-free.
- Have a ritual for after work. Give yourself a change of scenery, a change of clothes, something to signify the transition from work to home—even if you work from home. Music can also help. What's a favorite song you can play at the end of every workday? Here's one that's up for the task.
7 examples of healthy boundaries
Setting boundaries at work is easier when you (a) believe in your boundaries and (b) have a few stock phrases to use when necessary ... and where it's appropriate. Examples:
- "I'm not okay with that." (when someone tests your limits)
- "No thanks." (as in, "How would you like to start an office knitting club?")
- "I need to let that go to someone else." (when someone makes an unreasonable request)
- "I've just got too much on my plate." (another reasonable response to unreasonable requests)
- "I need to pass, but thank you" (to the invitation you're not willing or able to accept)
- "Could I ask you to turn down your music?" (most people will)
- "I need that book you borrowed by 9am tomorrow." (Hint: Don't lend books)
A word about professional boundaries
Professional boundaries are not optional or merely "nice to have." Professional boundaries have to do with moral, ethical, legal or professional requirements; e.g., avoiding dual relationships or conflicts of interest.
How well does your team know what's expected of them in each of these areas? How well have you trained them to know and uphold professional boundaries?
Need more boundaries at work?
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