Taken at Fairfield Waters Townsville Qld.© 2010 I retain Copyright.Boundaries are a peculiar structure because there are so many interpretations of what a boundary is.  Some boundaries are inflexible, others are flexible; some boundaries are established in a way that leaves persons reeling and feeling ostracized, others are set in a way that feels inclusive, strengthening relationships. Regardless the outcomes, boundary setting is a process which requires the skill of constructive confrontation. How you set a boundary is highly dependent on your work-relationship goals, and your ability to effectively confront challenges, and manage potential conflict when there is a boundary violation.

As a colleague always used to say to me, “It can be easy or it can be difficult, the choice is yours”. If you decide to take the path of least resistance because the relationship is important, you may decide not to establish boundaries erroneously thinking this decision will save the relationship.  However, this is a recipe for the slow demise of your relationship as you are not being true to yourself. It is time to realize the boundary setting process can be amicable and respectful and can save the relationship when boundaries are successfully established.

When boundary setting efforts come too late, leaders have significant pent-up emotion that can spill into the boundary setting conversation. As a result, what should have been respectful dialogue, shows up in the form of an undisciplined reaction because all the little boundary infractions added up over time.  Whether the intention is to terminate the relationship or not, boundaries should be set authentically and with emotional competence.

Boundaryless Persons

Some persons have little to no boundaries, they are unaware they are infringing on your space because they are predisposed to openness, sharing, seeking information and crossing boundaries to achieve these goals. On the other hand, some persons know they are encroaching on your boundaries and they don’t care about you, your sensitivities or your attempts to set boundaries. They only care about what they want, when they want it.

There are a number of possible ways to engage persons who have no boundaries. Some persons are fine when they encounter ‘boundarylessness’ in others because they operate similarly. On the other end of the spectrum, there are persons who perceive the need for an abnormal amount of boundaries. The key to this is to use wisdom in deciding if a boundary should be set, and if so, consider how you will deliver your decision if you value the work-relationship.

In the workplace, boundary incursions occur in a number of different ways: penetrating personal questions, the inability to maintain confidentiality, sexual innuendo, even someone playing music audibly at their desk can create a need for boundary setting. Loud behavior, gossip and peer pressure are also examples of boundary infractions that create tension at work. As you have determined by now, the no crossing zone is a boundary that should be well defined if it is to be effectively implemented. Flowery, tactful language lacks clarity and focus and leads to ineffective boundary setting.

Four Tips for Setting and Maintaining Your Boundaries

  1. Self-awareness is the first step. Know your core values. Consider your feelings about a situation and decide how and when you will set or reinforce your boundaries.  Check your motives for boundary setting. Are they intrinsic to you or are you being influenced by others? For instance, coworkers can place undue pressure on each other to exclude persons perceived as different. Sometimes these influencers present very logical arguments to strengthen their point of view. In circumstances like this, ask yourself, “What are my values here?” and “How do I remain true to myself?”
  2. After your self-assessment, if you decide setting boundaries is necessary, think about how you will formulate the boundary setting discussion so it is respectful, authentic, clear, and appropriate. At this juncture, it is important for you to decide if you would like to maintain the relationship or not. If you want or need to maintain the relationship, your plan of action should include emotionally intelligent components, taking the other person’s point of view into consideration. If the relationship is not one you want to maintain, your approach can reflect this.
  3. Prepare for violations because boundaryless persons are oftentimes oblivious to the needs of others. They will test your boundaries until they fully understand the boundary is there for good. Therefore, setting a boundary is not an event. It is a process because those who violate boundaries need to identify and overcome deeply encoded habits.
  4. The fourth tip is to define your limits by establishing what your work/life balance should look like, how accessible do you want to be after hours, and how much extra work you are willing to accept. Develop negotiation skills so you can continually manage your boundaries and your stress level.

Boundary setting is an essential skill for leaders because when extrinsic pressures override your intrinsic values and preferences, you become out of alignment with yourself and stress levels mount. It is important to not only set boundaries for yourself, it is equally important to respect the boundaries of others. When coworkers feel violated or overworked, engagement is not possible, so take the time to understand the members of your team, their needs and make every effort to observe their boundaries.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her free newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her weekly podcast at Evolve Podcast.