set boundaries at work

3 questions to ask before you set boundaries at work

Knowing how to set boundaries at work in unhealthy or unproductive situations is an important skill, both for yourself and ultimately for the team involved. But what does it mean to set boundaries at work, and how should you do it to achieve the desired outcome?

Let’s start by talking about what a boundary is.

  1. If you are in a situation that you find unhealthy or otherwise intolerable, you can set a boundary by communicating what you will do (to care for yourself) should the circumstances continue.
  2. Then, follow through on what you said you would do when the situation you find unacceptable drags on.

That’s it?

Yes, that’s it. But there are some nuances we need to review…

Ready for some tough love? Here are 3 questions you really need to think about when going down this path.

Q1. If you want to set a boundary at work, are you willing to communicate the boundary to others?

When you set boundaries at work, it’s a good idea to communicate them to the other party or parties. It’s not a requirement, but if you are really working to improve your situation, you can’t go wrong with effective communication.

“Guys, if there continues to be distracting chatter around my cubicle, then I will have to take my work elsewhere and I won’t be available for questions or help if you need me.”

You can set up this boundary in your own head, but you might worry about how it looks to just be absent from your cubicle for long stretches. Better to tell others what you are doing.

“If the team continues to schedule evening conference calls, I will need to bow out and provide my input the following morning, rather than efficiently in real-time. The encroachment on my family time is not something I am willing to accept right now.”

In addition to your decision to communicate your boundary, it is your choice to communicate the reason for it.

“Boss, if there continues to be this level of micro-managing and interruption as I try to get my daily tasks completed, then I’ll have to seek a transfer to another department. This situation is not productive to ensure I can get the necessary results for my performance evaluation.”

This is one you may opt to keep to yourself or openly communicate, depending on your relationship with your boss. Whether to others or yourself, make sure it’s clear what the unacceptable situation is, and what behavior you will engage as a result.

Q2. Are you trying to change the circumstances you are operating under, or are you trying to change another person’s behavior?

If you would like to set a boundary in order to influence someone’s behavior, you are using boundaries wrong. Boundaries should not (and cannot) be used to influence another person’s behavior. To do so is manipulation.

Boundaries are what you put in place to change intolerable circumstances you are operating under. It is a way for you to change YOUR behavior, for your health and well-being and personal effectiveness, with full knowledge that you can never really change someone else.

Notice in the examples above, the other party or parties can continue to behave however they choose. If they never do anything differently, the boundary you set changes your environment or situation with the change in YOUR behavior.

Q3. Are you truly unwilling to continue to accept the situation as it stands?

When you set a boundary at work, you are drawing a line in the sand for yourself. But in order for the boundary to have any teeth, you must actually follow through on the consequences you defined.

If you are unwilling to follow through on the boundary you set, then the situation likely is not as unacceptable as you originally believed.

To set a boundary without the necessary follow-through is just a threat. And when you threaten to do something and don’t follow through, it’s like the boy who cried wolf. Your word (to yourself and others) no longer carries weight.

Imagine if you set the boundary with a micro-manager boss, as in the example above, but you never actually seek a transfer. Without a commitment to follow through, the situation probably is more tolerable than you are prepared to do anything about.

And that’s OK, too. But you might want to stop characterizing it as intolerable.

The third question is especially important to evaluate because when you set boundaries at work, there can be consequences. One consequence is that you are more effective in your duties, but there may be other, more political consequences. This is not good or bad, but it is something you can evaluate with what warrants setting a boundary, and how you want to proceed

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