Build healthy boundaries at work
Boundaries help to define how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. Think of them as guidelines that inform how we behave in any given situation or relationship. They also help other people to predict what they can, and cannot, expect from us.
Boundaries also protect you; they keep you safe. They are extremely important for your integrity, psychological safety and emotional wellbeing. They keep the good in and the bad out. Imagine a house with a white picket fence all around the perimeter. Any onlooker will see where that boundary is and know not to cross it.
But setting psychological boundaries is a common challenge, in part because they are invisible and intangible, and in part because they require a certain amount of courage and assertiveness to establish and maintain them.
It’s especially difficult for overly accommodating people or those who can be described as ‘people-pleasers’ because they naturally tend to prioritise others’ needs and disregard, downplay or even ignore their own.
Here are some common workplace scenarios that you might recognise in yourself or others: you do a lot for others and secretly get annoyed for not being thanked; or you might agree to do something for someone else, when in fact you’d like to gently push back or say a definitive ‘no, that’s not possible’.
Perhaps you find yourself in a position where someone else gets the credit for your work, or they downplay the effort or expertise you contributed. Ultimately, if you lack strong boundaries, you’re setting yourself up to be overlooked for career development or promotion opportunities.
Having weak or flexible boundaries can also have negative consequences for you in your workplace and personal relationships. You might find yourself spending time with people who take you for granted, try to control you, and question or override your decisions.
When you lack strong boundaries, you might find yourself feeling exhausted, frustrated or resentful, yet you rarely express this. By contrast, when you have established boundaries, you will trust yourself more when making decisions. People will also trust you more because they'll know where you stand. You will be better placed to challenge others, and you'll become more resilient to change and stress.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the problem is that most of us don’t really know how to set or establish healthy boundaries. However, it is not impossible.
Begin by considering the four basic boundaries below in the workplace context. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to setting your boundaries – they are yours, and they may change over time and across settings.
- How do you manage your personal and physical space?
- Are you a hugger, or would you prefer (all or some) people to keep their distance?
- Would you prefer to work between 9am and 5pm so that you can protect your personal time?
- Do you dress to impress or prefer a more informal style?
- Do you prefer a quiet corner in the office or an open-plan zone?
- How formally or informally do you relate to others at work?
- Do you adapt your communication style for your peers and your senior leaders?
- Would you disclose personal information or prefer not to talk about your private life at work?
- What cultural beliefs or principles do you live by?
- What would you like others to know about you, and how would it help you at work?
- Do you take an interest in other people’s beliefs and principles?
- How do you manage your wellbeing at work?
- Do you express your emotions or prefer to focus on the task?
- Do you tell people how you are feeling?
- Do you ask others how they are feeling?
As a useful reflection exercise you might like to write two lists. One list should contain items that describe your redefined boundaries – for example, what you would like to be, do and stand for (eg ‘I would challenge a colleague who is being disrespectful at work’). Then write another list of things you would not like to be, do or stand for (eg ‘I don’t stay late in the office on a Friday evening’). You might find it easier to begin by writing this second list of things you wouldn’t do.
Establishing your boundaries can be a pretty scary undertaking when you’ve not been used to standing up for yourself. Here are some useful things to consider:
Once you have a clear idea of the physical, social and spiritual and psychological rules you live by, you can begin to establish them. To do this, try the following:
Communicate them to other people, clearly and assertively.
Observe and learn from others who seem to have strong boundaries.
Be aware of your feelings but check that they are reliable. For example, you may feel awkward when you push back on a deadline for the first time, but that isn’t a sign you should back down.
Practise asserting your needs, wants and desires in a ‘safe’ relationship at first, with people who respect you so that you can build your confidence.
Finally, be prepared for others to be surprised. They are used to you accommodating their needs, so when you begin to assert your own, they may be shocked at first.
Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach
This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine July 2021