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What You Need to Know Before Setting Boundaries at Work

A colleague once said to me with a mix of awe and fear, “You are really good at setting boundaries.” As we talked more, it became evident that his comment was more about his frustration with his own lack of boundaries in his job than about my boundary-setting prowess.

People often avoid setting boundaries in their professional lives. Maybe you think that setting and protecting boundaries at work will make you seem like someone who is difficult to work with or who isn’t committed to the job. But, without boundaries, you don’t know your healthy limits—and neither do your coworkers or manager.

Before you take control of your work priorities by setting boundaries, what do you need to know?

Setting boundaries is more than saying “no”

Setting boundaries is actually about putting yourself in a position to say “yes” to what matters most. It’s about clearly understanding what you value and why, and then decisively and continuously choosing to make those values your top priority. The designers at Gaping Void have succinctly illustrated this idea:

a drawing of a simple pie chart with the majority of the area labeled 'what we say no to' and a small sliver of area labeled 'our values'

When you say “no,” you create the capacity you need to say “yes” to your values. By setting boundaries at work and saying “no,” you free up your time, energy, emotions, and talents for what is most important. Personal values that might connect to your job include helping your community, upholding truth, having work-life balance, protecting civil rights, being creative, or advancing scientific knowledge.

Setting boundaries at work takes finesse

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean shouting “No way! Nuh-uh. Never gonna happen.” in your boss’ face every time they make an unreasonable request. If all you say is “no,” your coworkers might see it as a sign incompetence (“I can’t”) or unjustified obstinacy (“I won’t”).

To communicate your boundaries at work, be calm, clear, and specific, and also offer solutions and alternatives. Make the discussion about the quality of your work instead of about the imposition you believe the request puts on you.

For example, if your boss keeps piling on the work, you might sit down with them and talk about how to prioritize your workload and choose the trade-offs to make. To learn more about communicating your boundaries, read Where to Draw the Line by Anne Katherine.

Setting boundaries creates healthy relationships

Though they’re not romantic ones (well, not usually), we are in relationships with our coworkers. Just like family, friends, and significant others, coworkers can respect you and your boundaries, thereby supporting you to excel at your job while holding true to your values. Or, coworkers can intentionally or unintentionally invade your boundaries, creating a work environment where you’re burdened with greater emotional, physical, and mental stress.

By setting boundaries with your coworkers, you let them know your priorities and your limits. you help them understand who you are, how you can effectively work together, how to respect you, and what they can expect of you.

If someone at work is threatening, harassing, or abusing you, or if they’re trying to get you to violate ethics rules or break the law, setting boundaries probably isn’t sufficient. Talk to your manager or human resources immediately.

Setting boundaries is self-care

You’re in charge. Setting boundaries is a set of personal choices you make and about your life, and about how you want work to fit your values. It’s about making sure you take care of your needs. Because, let’s be real, you’re often the only person at work who is looking out for you.

Setting boundaries keeps also you from being overwhelmed by events that are not actually your problem. As the saying goes, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s an act of kindness to help a colleague in need once in a while. But, if you’re constantly saving other people’s hides at work, you’re probably not taking care of yourself and you’re definitely not helping the other person grow as a professional.

While setting and maintaining boundaries is often a healthy practice, you can take it too far. Avoid being overly rigid, negative, or aggressive when it comes to defending your boundaries. And, don’t use your boundaries as an excuse to close yourself off to new experiences or isolate you from relationships.

Setting boundaries can irritate the self-centered

Keep in mind that some people don’t react well when others set boundaries. They may be accustomed to and may even enjoy having others cave in to their arrogant, controlling, micromanaging, or power-hungry behavior. Often the only way to please these self-centered people is complete subservience, which would require you to live their values instead of your own.

If you’re surrounded by self-centered coworkers who resent you for setting reasonable professional boundaries, it might be time to consider whether there’s a better job out there that aligns with your values.

Have you tried to set boundaries at work? Share you experience and lessons learned in the comments.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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Tammy

Excellent article! In preparing others for employment, I try to impart to my consumers that one of the unwritten rules of the workplace is that we teach others how to treat us. We can sometimes be too eager to please in the beginning; but, once we are established, we have a tendency to “relax” because we feel justified that we’ve proven our worth. However, it can become a cycle of resentment– with the boss, it might be “you’ve changed, you don’t seem as cooperative as before”; and with yourself, you might say “I feel taken advantage of, I’m supposed to be everything to everyone”; this can be avoided with a happy medium of cooperation/boundaries. Your article provides a way to achieve that happy medium. Thank you!

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Jeremy

This is a great introduction to the idea of boundaries in a professional setting. However, there’s another half to the equation: having good boundaries not only means being able to “say no”, but also to be able to tolerate HEARING “no”. In some ways, having a good enough boundary to respect others’ choices and limits can be even more important than establishing your own, because the alternative would be hurting others – not just yourself.

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Productive Introvert

This is helpful and affirming. I’ve recently set some new boundaries at work and they’ve not been well received by a couple of co-workers. Some people perceive boundaries as personal rejection, when in fact it’s self care or respectful differences in communication style. Sometimes it feels like romper room; thankfully I’ve got a good sense of humor.

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