Author: Cassie Myers
Boundaries are guidelines, rules and limits that are used to communicate to others reasonable and safe ways for their interactions and how they will respond if someone goes against those guidelines (University of Kentucky). We might have boundaries with others and ourselves, for this article, we are particularly interested in the boundaries we set with others at work.
When we discuss boundaries with an inclusive and equitable lens, it’s critical to acknowledge why boundaries are needed at all. Creating boundaries at work is an act someone can independently choose to do for themselves, it is also an act someone could be prompted to take in response to an unsafe environment.
Consider the following scenario: let’s say we have a garden in our unfenced backyard, and our neighbors have not been picking from it for the last 5 years. However, one day you notice that some of your plants have gone missing, and you feel a need to protect them. To protect them, you could include a sign with rules or install a fence to keep harm out. Sometimes boundaries are set because our environment is not safe.
There are several personal benefits to setting boundaries, including maintaining self-respect, protecting your physical space from intrusion, making healthy changes and strengthening your own identity. Boundaries in the workplace can promote healthy relationships and conflicts. Having a lack of boundaries in the workplace can result in smothering, lack of privacy, invisibility, disassociation and burnout (UAlberta).
Boundary setting is complex. While beneficial, not everyone has the same amount of power to establish boundaries. Barriers to setting boundaries can include fear of retaliation, physical harm, emotional harm and guilt (University of Kentucky). Individuals from systematically oppressed groups often face barriers to setting and maintaining boundaries in the workplace because of their lack of social power.
To navigate the complexities of boundaries, we offer a method individuals might use to establish boundaries in the workplace.
ESTABLISHING BOUNDARIES IN THE WORKPLACE
Sometimes it is not possible to establish and maintain boundaries in the workplace; this might be due to a threat of safety or fear of retaliation. We recommend that this advice is taken only if it is safe to do so and matches your current situation.
Reflection on wants and needs
Before we communicate boundaries, we need to discover what they are. What boundaries you set can depend on what is important to you, such as who you want to be in the workplace, the behaviors you value in the workplace, the behaviors you do not appreciate and what you need to be happy at work. We can answer these questions broadly or we can be more specific to think about what each of these responses would look like if someone else were upholding them. For example, what does it look like when someone recognizes what is important to you? What kind of treatment do you want to receive as you become who you want to be at work? What behaviors make you happy at work?
The answers to these questions are fluid and can change depending on how you feel, what is happening in your life, what is happening at work and who you are interacting with. The example below is a list of wants and needs that might frame boundaries with general team members with whom we have little history with. However, we might have bigger wants and needs if we are interacting with a team member who has harmed us. It can sometimes be helpful to write down questions you are going to answer as well as your wants and needs to be able to answer those questions. Journaling after work or revisiting messages can help you identify what your needs are.
At work I want to grow as a people leader. At work I want to:
- Achieve a level of work-life balance
- Have access to a comfortable workspace
- Find time for professional development opportunities
- Be present as my true self
Translating needs into boundaries
Boundaries are used to help communicate to those around you how you want to be engaged with. When we translate our wants and needs into boundaries, we are reimagining our desired outcome through the behavior of another person.
If we revisit the first need in our example, “achieve a level of work-life balance,” to change this into a boundary that we can communicate, we need to identify the actions of others that help achieve this and those that negate it. If we want to achieve a work-life balance we might need team members to respect our working hours, book meetings on certain days and communicate through work-specific channels. Our boundaries in this case might be that we are only available during our work hours, that our working hours change depending on personal needs, that we cannot have meetings on days where we have a personal obligation and that we are not available for work communication on our personal phone.
In order to grow as a people leader I have the following workplace boundaries:
- I am only available during work hours and my work phone will not be connected outside of these hours.
- When I travel for work, I will require that my workspace be set up for me to focus.
- As I am allotted via my company policy for 2h monthly and $1000 annually towards professional development I will be spending the full amount of time and money I am allotted.
- I will not hide any aspect of my identity in order to be more palatable for others.
Types of boundaries
In the same way that our wants and needs can change, so do the types of boundaries we might set. When we think of our wants and needs, it’s important to understand how important they are to us. We can use the different types of boundaries to understand this. Boundaries can be generalized into three types:
- Permeable boundaries: boundaries that are clear but the rule is not set definitively and can sometimes be crossed by those engaging with us and ourselves. Often permeable boundaries do not have any limitations that keep ourselves from not upholding them. For example, I might have my work phone on outside of work hours and sometimes answer it.
- Rigid boundaries: boundaries that cannot be moved by those engaging with us and are rarely changed by those who set them. Rigid boundaries often have factors that prevent ourselves or others from crossing them. For example, I might have my work phone off outside of work hours so I am unreachable.
- Flexible boundaries: boundaries that are firm, clear and protecting but they can allow for small things to come through while keeping out the big unsafe things. Flexible boundaries might be changed in the moment or person to person. For example, I might screen communications on my work phone and answer some or none.
Knowing what type of boundaries we are upholding can help us better communicate them to others and understand how to respond if someone violates our boundaries.
It is important when communicating and setting boundaries with others that you are safe and have support if things do not go as planned. When communicating boundaries, it is helpful to use simple and direct language (UofAlberta). A general format is what the boundary is and what will happen instead/or if the boundary is crossed. We can revisit our example boundaries for ways to communicate them.
- To ignore communications outside of work hours
“I saw that you called me on the weekend, I do not answer any work communications outside of work hours. Is there something I can help you with today?”
- To deny a work travel opportunity
“I really would love to go on this work trip, but I noticed that the workspace offered does not fit the needs that I communicated to you, so I would be unable to work.”
- To take time for professional development
“I can’t make that meeting, I had booked that time on my calendar to take a course. There are other times available on my calendar next week”
- When asked to change an aspect of your identity
“My hairstyle is an important part of who I am and I will not change it.”
Sometimes our boundaries are communicated in response to a behavior, other times they are shared preemptively to set the expectation. When setting boundaries, there is no need to define yourself or explain your feelings, even if you are faced with resistance. When it is safe and possible to do so, it can be helpful to follow through on your boundaries with action (UofAlberta).
Responding when Boundaries are Violated
Having your boundaries violated can be a very harmful experience. Beyond clear communication, there are tools you can use to help reinforce your boundaries.
- Clear agreements
“I need more clarification on what is expected of me in this role”
“What times can I expect to hear from you?”
- Confidence in knowing yourself
“I am unable to work within that context, is there something we can do about that?”
- Temporarily disengaging
“I will not continue to engage with you if this is your behavior”
“Feel free to contact me in two days, I will not be able to respond before then”
- Permanently disengaging
“I am no longer going to engage with you”
Creating, establishing and maintaining boundaries is not an easy task. For people leaders, it is critical that this practice is modelled, resourced and encouraged. Setting boundaries, while difficult, can help create a safer and more engaged team.