T he aim of setting healthy boundaries is to protect our values and interests while simultaneously respecting the rights of others. The result can be greater fulfilment and satisfaction, and paradoxically, it also fosters understanding and sensitivity towards the people around us.
Defining and defending important boundaries within the framework of generally accepted norms is applicable to the workplace as well. This approach will be beneficial for employers too.
What to Remember When Talking About Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries requires an understanding of our needs, sincere introspection, and careful observation of how we feel in different circumstances.
It is also important to recognize oneself (or at least strive to do so) as a friend. At first, this seemed foreign to me, but I understand it better now – tolerance and self-care are the foundations for us to:
- fulfil our responsibilities towards ourselves, including healthy rest and taking care of our health;
- develop and achieve our goals and dreams, which will drive us and – if others choose to follow – set an example for them;
- take care of others, especially our loved ones and friends, in a way that is also good for us (not without reason, the airplane instruction for parents says to put on your own oxygen mask first, then for the child).
The next layer is properly understood assertiveness. It should not be confused with constantly saying “no” and aggression. It’s about objectively and adequately expressing your opinion in situations, and – towards others – defining the boundaries/time frame within which we expect changes in behaviour that violate our boundaries. This is a skill – a term that I find more fitting than “character trait” – that can be trained, and you will find plenty of materials on this topic.
Three Types of Boundaries, Not Only at Work
Nancy Lewin in her book on setting boundaries (I recommend it, quite enlightening) lists three types of boundaries:
- fundamental (non-negotiable);
- intermediate (it would be good);
- minor (the icing on the cake).
We should never cross the first boundaries. Boundaries at level 2 can be violated in the context of people we care about the most. Level 3 assumes the greatest flexibility. However, any violation of boundaries must be conscious (we must consider the consequences) and with respect for ourselves.
Each of us is responsible for setting and defending boundaries. We cannot demand this from others.
I will say it directly: we often fear setting boundaries; this still applies to me. We want others to like us and often care for their well-being at the expense of our own. We also often imagine the worst scenarios, the likelihood of which is small. At the same time, we are not able to prepare for every option.
The result of such fear is co-dependence. Sometimes a parent-child relationship is created – we infantilize others as unable to deal with their own problems.
Setting boundaries leads to healthy selfishness. It gives others responsibility for their own well-being and decisions.
Boundaries in the Workplace
That setting boundaries in the workplace is beneficial for employees, I think, is quite obvious. Regarding employers, the benefits are particularly visible in the long term.
Thanks to the boundaries set by themselves, employees maintain a healthy distance from work, which allows them to make better decisions. It also positively affects their health and counteracts professional burnout.
Besides, in my opinion, every employer should value someone who calmly and in accordance with accepted norms (labour law, scope of duties, organizational culture assuming readiness to help, etc.) sets their boundaries. Thanks to this, as managers, we are simply able to plan our work better.
At the same time, a certain flexibility is important from both sides. No one can predict everything, and precisely because we aim to build win-win relationships, it’s sometimes worth bending a little (I write this in relation to boundaries at levels 2 and 3; the key words are “sometimes” and “a little”).
How boundaries run in relation to each person may look different, and this should not be surprising. They reflect our individual values, aspirations, and character traits.
At the same time, being a manager, it is worth observing whether the balance is not disturbed:
- on the one hand: whether any of the employees need our support in setting or respecting boundaries (I remind you of the long-term benefits, and employing someone is a marathon, not a sprint);
- on the other hand: whether in some cases the defence or course of boundaries does not violate accepted norms and manifests itself, for example, in avoiding responsibility or even aggressive attitude (which I also include broadly understood passive aggression).
How to take care of your own boundaries and help someone in setting boundaries? This is a topic for a book, but I will try to share a few thoughts.
The Boss Who Sets an Example
Firstly, especially if we are already quite good at setting boundaries, let’s consciously set an example.
For me, it is important that employees have the opportunity to disconnect from work after leaving the office/turning off the computer. This means that I am happy to be “on duty” if something really important happens. Then 1) I try to direct the situation so that the introduction of the final solution can wait “until tomorrow”. Usually, this is enough, but if it fails 2) I try to act independently by proposing something like a hotfix (which may already be perceived as a certain violation of boundaries). Only when this is not possible or effective: 3) I call an employee asking for advice or action.
In the context of setting an example, my boundaries are also important, and performing such a “duty” is certainly a violation (although usually within the flexibility I mentioned). It is important that employees do not perceive this, for example, as an expectation of constant availability or feel bad that “the boss has to do something for them”. Setting an example and its proper communication and understanding by the coworkers is a really difficult topic.
For me, a peaceful vacation is very important to regenerate. In this case, I arrange for someone to cover certain responsibilities. I turn off my work phone and do not check the company email (maybe sometimes I’m tempted, but I’m getting better at it :)). Employees have my private number and know they can use it if something requiring my attention happens. When they do not call or text (I prefer this form because it is less invasive), it means that everything is at least relatively okay and I can rest without the temptation to check the email. This opportunity allows me to set an example about maintaining boundaries, demonstrate trust, and show how a certain degree of flexibility can actually strengthen boundaries.
Tip: Regarding emails checked on vacation, remember that sent emails mean received emails. It’s easy to fall into a spiral of correspondence.
Equal Distribution of Work
The work framework sets not only hours but also the scope of responsibilities. If we feel overwhelmed, it might be time to discuss changes. Simultaneously, when we notice an imbalance – such as someone having fewer tasks or, worse, not fulfilling their responsibilities at the team’s expense – it’s important to speak up. Through these conversations, we may gain a broader perspective (e.g., someone is having a difficult time due to problems we weren’t aware of), which can help avoid frustration. It may lead to necessary changes as well.
Here comes the important role of managers as guardians of balance and proper distribution of responsibility. Our job positions are often complex, and it is impossible to codify everything. Therefore, observing and then converting our conclusions into important criteria that define fairness for both us and the team is key.
If we, as bosses, turn a blind eye to uneven workloads, and even worse, reinforce this imbalance with bonuses, we lay the groundwork for what I call “sweet toxicity”. Annual assessments, bonuses, and remuneration should mirror the natural variances found in every team. I’m sorry, but even in setting boundaries, there are limits: as a boss, it’s not justifiable to constantly avoid uncomfortable topics under the guise of defending your boundaries (read: to gain peace of mind).
Team leaders must be as independent as possible. The head of the department, overseeing team leaders and their teams, may not have detailed insight into the work of individual specialists, let alone higher superiors. It seems to me that the department head should highlight areas with apparent irregularities, including discrepancies between the responsibilities of a given team leader and their team. The higher the position in the hierarchy, the broader the segment of the organization their way of thinking should encompass.
Also, in the context of setting and respecting boundaries, clear communication is important. I would like to draw particular attention to talking about our capabilities and limitations, also regarding knowledge and skills. This will give a better perspective to superiors or contractors who can, for example, offer more time to complete a task or prepare a different and probably better plan.
It is also important to say “no”. In the workplace – both employees and their bosses – we are afraid to use this word. However, it can take many forms, including gentle and respectful ones. Refusing in justified cases is key to protecting the boundaries we have set. It also protects from taking on excessive commitments, which lead to mistakes and missed deadlines – and this is in no one’s interest.
In the context of communication, it is also worth remembering one aspect: the skilful delegation of duties. While this has already been mentioned in this text, it bears repeating: on the one hand, it serves as a tool for evenly distributing responsibility, and on the other, it presents an opportunity to demonstrate trust, which in turn fosters a sense of empowerment in the workplace.
The topic of setting and protecting boundaries in the workplace is very complex. I am aware that I have only outlined a few areas worth remembering in this context. I encourage your own reflections and support you in the hope that the outcomes of defining what we can and wish to contribute will lead to healthier relationships and greater satisfaction in both work and life.
I also invite you to be understanding towards yourself and to take the time to draw your boundaries. And do not worry – they don’t have to be set in stone! Boundaries indeed should evolve in tandem with our personal development and changing needs and values. Sometimes we view ourselves as a “finished project”, finding it hard to envision a future where we are different, but it’s likely that we will change, at least to some extent.
I invite you to read the article about balance in life and my concept of 3W Navigation. Also, consider subscribing to the newsletter – the registration form is below. It’s worth it because I’m planning a future text about boundaries… on the Moon and Mars!