Boundaries are about what’s ok and what’s not. It’s about what is considered acceptable in a community, workplace and how we interact with each other. The unfortunate thing about boundaries is that most of them don’t get communicated directly or effectively. Many are inferred or unspoken. Ultimately, we suck at it. Setting boundaries can feel hard, but trust me, it’s a worthwhile investment. If you’d rather get on with your work instead of constantly putting out fires, read on.
Have you ever seen a person do something at work that wasn’t ok but no one said anything? At least not to their face. There may have been a few raised eyebrows and shared glances. But this non-verbal communication is insufficient and rarely is it directed at the person crossing the boundary.
Not being direct about crossing a boundary sets people up to fail. It often shows up as the person being shamed or shunned for other, unrelated behaviour instead. If you’re on the receiving end of this, it can be confusing and may seem out of proportion so you might not take it seriously. Indirect communication about boundaries not only doesn’t help people understand what’s appropriate but risks disengagement.
If there is any complexity involved beyond a simple, “Don’t do that”, we struggle to find the words and we often avoid saying anything until the situation has passed or the person is no longer present. The sentiment becomes “I wish they hadn’t done that” but is more commonly expressed as “Can you believe they did that?” This avoidance leads to talking to others about boundaries getting crossed instead of dealing with it directly.
So why do we suck at communicating boundaries effectively? There are plenty of reasons, here are the top three based on my experience as a coach and consultant.
- We are afraid to offend or cause conflict.
- The shame associated with talking about what is ok and what is not, makes it difficult for both the person whose boundaries are crossed and those who crossed them.
- We struggle to find the words, so we just avoid it to keep the peace.
Changing Social Boundaries
Social norms are set by establishing boundaries around what we will accept and what we no longer tolerate. As this changes, it can become easier to speak out about where the line is and what’s appropriate. However, it doesn’t always feel that way.
As children, we are taught to obey our parents, not to have sovereignty over ourselves. As we become adolescents we question our parents’ authority and make up our own mind, but it doesn’t necessarily connect to developing our own sense of agency. Many of us struggle to prioritise our own needs and to feel comfortable setting boundaries. Few of us have ever been taught how to set effective boundaries.
Those who have a strong sense of personal sovereignty tend to have less difficulty setting boundaries for themselves and this often extends to setting boundaries for groups and communities. This can look like advocacy and leadership.
Types of Boundaries
There are lots of different kinds of boundaries. What we focus on here relates primarily to professional settings with an emphasis on interpersonal boundaries.
A social boundary is a broad grouping that includes organisational boundaries that may be in the form of a code of conduct or less formal means. It includes what a group considers acceptable and what crosses the line. Often these are unspoken and others are formalised as a set of rules, agreements or contracts etc. This can be about who to speak to when you start a new role. The message, directly or indirectly might be: “Don’t go over your managers head.”
Physical boundaries are about time and space. Such as what time you leave work and how much space you take up in an office. If you work in a row of desks and your belongings start to impinge on other’s space it can cause irritation. It can also include timelines such as due dates, meeting start times and scope of work.
Interpersonal boundaries relate to people and how we interact with each other. This can make or break relationships. Especially when these boundaries are never spoken about and are a source of arguments large and small. When our boundaries clash with organisational boundaries tensions arise. Sometimes these can be negotiated, other times they remain in conflict until someone leaves. Ideally, we deal with them as they arise but this is not common practice.
Consider the anguish involved in needing to leave work to pick up a sick child. A workplace with strict policies may not allow it or it may not be workable. It would be difficult to interrupt a medical procedure for example. Increasingly we are seeing workplace policies become more flexible and find ways to make it workable and have a greater level of understanding, and creating new boundaries with greater clarity.
Circumstance and Context
Two other factors that impact boundaries are context and power dynamics. What’s ok in one set of circumstances isn’t in another. For example, conversations heard at the printer would be very different than what you might hear in a fine dining restaurant.
Imagine a person who might have no issue setting boundaries in a family setting, with their own children, siblings and even their own parents but struggles to draw the line when it comes to working overtime. Working on a big project they may feel intimidated or obliged to work the extra time. Even if it’s not about extra earnings, it may be about feeling unable to bring themself to have the conversation about where the line is for them regarding time away from their family. Without a clear or strong boundary, this can lead to family life suffering.
What you would say to a CEO would likely change if you’re at work compared to seeing them outside of work. We might struggle to feel confident in expressing our boundaries to those who outrank us in the social order or workplace hierarchy. This dynamic can create openings for abuse of power. We have seen this come to light in sexual misconduct scandals in church communities, with politicians, celebrities and in the #MeToo campaign.
The impact of what became a movement of people naming crossed boundaries is that it changed the landscape of what is considered acceptable. Holding people to account for crossing boundaries is now more socially accepted and taken seriously with real consequences compared to the past. It has provided us with greater collective courage to speak out and enforce our own boundaries but it hasn’t necessarily made it easier to have conversations about boundaries. We stand on the shoulders of those who took the risk to name what was not ok but has been previously tolerated.
Tips for Setting Effective Boundaries
Here are some things to consider when talking about your boundaries. Most of these apply to interpersonal boundaries and some are more organisational or social.
Why — If something is not ok, why not? For example, “Don’t come to work when you are unwell, you could make other people sick.”
Fear — Are you afraid to say something? This is normal but don’t let it stop you. Name it.
“This is hard for me to say…” or “It’s uncomfortable but I need you to know that this is hurtful.”
Assume ignorance — It’s quite likely the person crossing your boundary doesn’t realise they are. “You probably didn’t know this isn’t ok because…” or “You wouldn’t have known that this happened so please…”
Giving people the benefit of the doubt can help them respect a boundary instead of getting defensive when malice is assumed.
Be definitive — When we express boundaries tentatively or with reluctance it comes across as a preference or meek request rather than a clear expectation. It’s ok to say what’s not ok and to assert a boundary.
“The line for me is x, you are approaching that line.”
Enforce it — If a boundary is crossed, say so. If you have told them before, tell them again. Sometimes things need to be repeated for a message to get through. It may have been misinterpreted or simply not understood. Saying so in the moment is best to help the person learn where you’re boundaries are. Not enforcing the boundary sends a message that it’s not a boundary and doesn’t matter to you.
Where are your boundaries?
Ask yourself where you draw the line and how you relate to that line when people cross it. Parents, guardians and carers set and enforce boundaries for their children and people in their care but setting boundaries for ourselves is a different story, especially in a professional setting.
Setting boundaries can be hard work but the investment is worthwhile. It helps the people around us understand how to be respectful and though it’s not a fail-safe, having healthy boundaries and communicating them effectively contributes to greater mutual respect in general. Mark Groves reminds us that “Walls keep everybody out, boundaries teach people where the door is.”
Having healthy professional boundaries can foster longterm sustainability in your role, support work-life balance, prevent regret about not spending more time with family. It can also minimise or avoid the negative impact of burnout on our mental and physical health. Take the time to think about where the line is for you and how you’re communicating it, with actions and words. How might you be more clear and assert what is workable, appropriate and help develop trusting professional relationships in your team?
If you’d like to explore this further and feel your team could benefit from developing healthy professional boundaries these are the topics explored in the workshop on Setting Boundaries.
To book a half-day workshop on Boundaries for Professionals, click here.