Boundaries in the Workplace – So Misunderstood

This word has been increasingly used in all of our lives, particularly in the workplace. And possibly in no other environment is it being misused so significantly. By no means do I consider myself an expert in the topic. But I am good at synthesizer information for the sake of others’ learning and growth. I take responsibility for any misinformation that might exist from the sources leveraged. Here are the key two articles that inspired this writing (Boundaries, limits, needs, desires, wants: seeking interdependence and Your Boundaries Set You Free). Others are linked throughout.

| Disclaimer – If you the reader consent to continuing to read then the impact it has on you is your responsibility.

That is me setting a boundary. I am not taking responsibility for your impact. I certainly hope that you find something useful in the words and it leads to one or more positive experiences in your life. Less suffering. More joy.

And as always, I am open to conversations to take your questions or hear/read your comments because I do care and want to stay connected. But the learning and growth (or whatever other impact it might have) is your responsibility.

And at this moment, contrary to if I came up to you in a workplace setting and just started dumping on you all of my beliefs, you can easily stop reading. If you stop reading now this would be you setting a boundary. If you asked me to stop sharing my beliefs with you at your workplace – that would be you placing a limit on me.

Pause. I may have already gotten too deep into the work before setting a few key pieces on the board. Let’s start with defining a few words – specifically boundaries and limits.

I am a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown’s definition below found in her podcast from 2016.

| A boundary is a clear understanding of what is OK for you, and what is not OK.

However, I think it is potentially missing a piece that Mark Manson, best-selling NYT author includes in his definition in his writing on boundaries.

| Healthy Personal Boundaries = Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.

What I think is key in these two definitions is Brené points to the importance of understanding what your boundaries are and Mark points to taking responsibility for them. To do the self-work for both things are a big piece of work for most of us. And for most, it is work that never ends as our boundaries evolve as we evolve and as we move in and out of different situations.

Where boundaries are more internal or self-focused, limits are more about what you are placing on external or others. From an interview with trauma-informed transformational life coach Xavier Dagba limits are more specifically defined below.

| Limit – A limit is something that’s externally facing; something you’re asking someone else to do or not do.

Applying Boundaries & Limits to the Workplace

Often, we mix boundaries and limits with each other, and we go into a conversation. The most common one is when we say I need to set a boundary with you. I don’t set boundaries with others. Boundaries are about the internal rules I set for myself whereas limits are the external ones I am setting for others. In a work context, a good example here would be I have a boundary that I will not respond to emails after 6 pm or on the weekends. That is a rule for me to follow. Others can send me emails all they want during those time frames. I have no real control over that.

I could pretend I have some control and try to set an external limit. Let’s say I was the leader of a team and I set the rule that no one on the team was to send emails after 6 pm or on the weekends. That would be me setting a limit on others.

The common challenge, as many of you likely have experienced, is that without a limit me setting the boundary requires me to be exceptionally good at knowing my own self-worth and caring about my personal well-being at the risk of disappointing others. This is the self-development work I eluded to earlier. People will inevitably send me emails outside of my desired time frame. If I take too much responsibility for their emotions then I start to make up stories about what they might be thinking (e.g., angry that I’m not responding to them quickly enough) and then take actions to mitigate or repair the damage I feel I may have caused. Keep in mind that all of this is in my head and for those of you who have a high people-pleaser behaviour, the stories can be quite exhausting.

Now let’s say that I am working with a group of people that would like, possibly need, responses from me outside of those hours. Let’s make it a super benign reason like they are in a time zone 6 hours ahead of me, so we have very little overlap in the working day. In this case, I have a couple of choices. One – I can shift my boundary for this situation. Boundaries are not concrete. They can ebb and flow depending on the people involved, the context for what is happening, etc. We do it naturally all the time like when we feel like there is a heightened state of danger such as someone you love dearly is on the other side of the world travelling and you wait up for an email/text response from them to say they are OK and you respond saying you love and miss them. What we tend to do poorly is be conscious about the different situations and how we will adapt our boundaries for them.

In the case of the group of colleagues 6 hours ahead of me I have another option. I could negotiate with them if there is an email that needs my attention before my normal start time for emails would they please text me and I will jump on it. In this instance, I’m inadvertently setting a limit with them. If you want to send me an email outside of my normal hours and you also want a response from within your hours you need to text me. I’m doing this because I know it will be hard for me to open my email box and only look for emails from them without easily becoming distracted by the other emails. Of course, they have to agree with the limit and there could be some back-and-forth discussion on this. As they are adults with full autonomy over themselves, I can’t force them to do anything. Just as your manager at work really can’t force you to do things you don’t want to do either beyond the basic job responsibilities and ethical guidelines you agreed to at the start of employment.

And of course, I could simply adjust my boundary and work at being really disciplined to not get sucked into the other emails. Thus, I’m adapting my boundary for specific situations without setting a limit. The limit in this case, if set, is me asking for help in respecting my boundaries.

Before we go on there are two more words that are key to define particularly for the workplace context – rules and agreements. These definitions come from the previously noted work of Brian Stout. Rules are like limits in that they are an effort to restrict someone else’s behaviour. Agreements are when we consent to the rule.

The most common example in the workplace is business conduct guidelines or the ethical rules that the company expects everyone to follow. When you agree to work for your employer you are in most cases asked to review and sign your agreement to these statements. They are presented as rules and then when you consent to them they become agreements. Once you have agreed then any additional boundaries or limits that are to be expected in this relationship (i.e., employer and employee) need to fit within this initial container. These can vary from company to company. Most companies ask you to review and sign each year as a reminder and re-commitment to your agreement. Most often they cover basic ethical guidelines like lying, treating others with respect and care, and creating a safe (both physically and mentally) working environment, etc. Rarely will there be such things in there like you must respond to emails after 6 pm.

France tried to impose a limit across all organizations regarding emails. And I have often worked in many public service organizations as a consultant where there was a clear limit set for how many hours the public service employees were allowed to work. These are two good comparisons of rules organizations are establishing for their workplace. If a given organization writes these rules into their business conduct guidelines and employees sign them then they become agreements.

Why does this all matter?

My observation of where workplace well-being breaks down the most is when organizations do not carefully consider their IMPLICIT and EXPLICIT rules and how they will impact the mental or physical health of their employees. These are the behaviours that their culture allows, possibly encourages, for the sake of being a successful employee that “fits in” to this team.

| Example 1 – If you want to be successful here you must work 60 hours a week and be available 24×7.

| Example 2 – If you want to be successful here, you need to be super outspoken in meetings and ultra-competitive.

| Example 3 – If you want to be successful here, you need to put up with clients (or internal leaders) that occasionally scream at you. Don’t complain. Don’t whine. Just do your job.

Those are examples of implicit rules that I have commonly seen in my 25+ years in professional services in multiple industries. But I have seen explicit ones that are just as harmful.

| Example 4 – if you want to receive a top rating you must have a utilization (i.e., billable hours to clients) of x % where x is significantly over 40 hours a week.

If your company requires people to work at an unhealthy set of hours over the course of the year, with little to no downtime for recovery, then it’s simply not sustainable. At least not with the same people. Hence the common problems of attrition, medical leaves, poor performance, etc.

Burnout continues to be the topic of conversation across many organizations. To fully address this we need to do these two things in parallel.

| Organizations to look at the systems and processes (e.g., the implicit and explicit rules or agreements) in place that are contributing to this versus putting the burden of “resilience” on the employee.

| Employees will need to get better at understanding what are their boundaries and limits they want to put in place for their sustainable peak performance. And they will need to become more confident and better and negotiating with others – both peers, managers/leaders and clients.

All of this requires more trust and psychological safety within the organization as a foundation for these important conversations. I am hopeful that organizations are starting to pay more attention to all of these things. And as employees educate themselves and do their own self-work they will demand it.

Many employees are avoiding doing their own self-work through quiet quitting or loud quitting or whatever quitting label you want to give it. It can feel easier to just move and hope the next place is a little better. The problem is you still take yourself and all of your beautiful flaws with you. I’m not advocating that you stay in a toxic environment, but I am encouraging anyone in that situation to recognize where self-work is needed to increase your chances of not letting it happen again. Discover the boundaries you need to set for you to flourish.

And of course, I’m encouraging organizations to take heed and do the work for the sake of employee wellbeing. If they were smart, they would also provide coaching to their employees, particularly leaders and managers, on establishing healthy boundaries and limits. Both the systemic and individual challenges need to be addressed and I firmly believe they must be done in parallel for us to have a meaningful impact on workplace wellbeing.

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