As leaders, setting boundaries at work is critical for maintaining our wellbeing and sense of control. Without boundaries, leaders have a tendency to simply do what other people want, all the time.
Workplaces can be busy, chaotic places. People are often distracted, focusing on their own priorities instead of considering the needs of others.
This isn’t necessarily malicious. It’s just that we generally feel our own pressures and struggles more strongly than those of others. Naturally, we’ll pay more attention to our own business.
When everybody does this and there are no boundaries, the strongest, loudest people will win the game.
How Setting Boundaries at Work Will Help You
Setting boundaries at work is simple. It means you will set limits on what you will accept, and what you won’t. You may think that in a work environment, this isn’t possible.
You may feel like you need to do what your boss and other senior people want you to do, all the time. However, this isn’t necessarily true. As a human being and a leader, you have the right to work in the way that helps you to be the most effective.
In fact, if you don’t start setting boundaries at work, you will likely be focusing on other people’s priorities instead of your own and you may become a less effective leader.
Setting boundaries at work helps other people understand how to work with you. Over time, they will learn how you work and will start to fit in with your patterns and standards.
Setting boundaries at work will help you reduce the amount of time you spend reacting to other people’s desires. Instead, you’ll be able to work more on your own terms, rather than by playing by someone else’s rules.
What Types of Boundaries Should You Set?
There are no specific rules for how you should be setting boundaries at work. However, it’s best to concentrate on the areas that have the most impact on you, or matter the most.
Below are some examples of boundaries that I find are most important for leaders in the workplace.
Boundary 1: Time Management – How You Use Your Time
I used to work in an organisation that had completely open calendars. That is, everybody could see what meetings everybody else was having all the time, unless they were marked as private. This was explained to me as aiming to create an “open and transparent” culture. The reality was far different.
What actually happened was people would check each other’s calendars to find out what was happening around the workplace. “Calendar surfing” was common, with managers monitoring their team members to see what they were up to.
Some people would try to book “work time” for themselves, which was focus time to complete specific tasks. Sometimes others would see this, and just book meetings right over the top of these appointments, because they knew that person was available.
Obviously, these aspects show the signs of a broken and dysfunctional culture, which wasn’t completely caused by having open calendars.
But the point is, people were not in control of their time the way they should have been.
Boundaries were not established, because everyone could see what everyone else was doing. Privacy was reduced, and the ability for everyone to manage their own schedule was compromised.
The way you manage your time is sacred. Using your time effectively is critical to maintaining a sense of control over your day, and improving your productivity.
Check out this related Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode:
Boundary 2: Ways of Working
Related to managing our time effectively is being able to set boundaries about the way we work. This might include the time we start and finish work, or the environment in which we work in.
If you need to drop your kids off at school in the morning, this is an important boundary. If you need to leave work at a certain time to make your yoga class, that’s important too.
With the rise of remote and flexible working, it’s also important to be able to make choices and set boundaries about where we work, too. Being able to work in the way we prefer gives us a sense of autonomy and control, which can make work much more enjoyable.
Without setting these boundaries at work, you may find yourself feeling stressed, dissatisfied and under pressure because other people will decide your work pattern for you.
You won’t always be able to work exactly the way you prefer, but if you don’t set boundaries, you can be sure that you will never be able to.
Boundary 3: Privacy, Involvement and Sharing of Information
If you feel like people are looking over your shoulder or monitoring your every move, it’s likely you’ll feel pretty uncomfortable.
Everybody has a right to some degree of privacy, even in the workplace. When we fail to set boundaries in this area, we often see other people taking liberties.
In one workplace, I dealt with a stakeholder who always wanted to be involved to review everything my team was working on.
While at least this showed interest, it was also restrictive. My team needed room to do their work without somebody checking in on them every minute. What was really needed was to make it clear to this stakeholder when they would be involved, and when they wouldn’t.
Over time, we managed to set some boundaries so that they were able to be involved at certain times, without being involved in every aspect of the work.
Failing to set boundaries in this way allows other people to make their own decisions about how they’ll be involved. If you share every piece of information you have, over time people will expect to know everything, all the time.
You need to be careful, because with some people if you “Give an inch, they will take a mile”.
Boundary 4: Behaviour
Setting boundaries at work also involves being able to draw the line on behaviour. Once again, if you fail to set boundaries in this area, people will behave the way they want, even if it hurts you and your team.
If people are rude or disrespectful to you and your team members, this needs to be corrected. Boundaries must be set, so that people know the behaviour is not acceptable.
Without setting boundaries, people will simply continue to act as they please, which sets a precedent for future behaviour. If you let this go on for long periods, it can be harder to change down the track.
Setting boundaries at work regarding behaviour can be difficult, because you need to call the behaviour directly. If someone steps over the line, you need to be able to name the behaviour, and say that it isn’t acceptable.
This takes courage and commitment. But once you take the step, people begin to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t, and they often start to fall in line. Once again, if you don’t set boundaries, nobody knows the rules you want to play by.
How Leaders Should Be Setting Boundaries at Work
Now that we have covered some of the common boundaries that are important for leaders, we need to understand how to put them in place.
Obviously, every situation and leader is different, but there are some common steps we can follow to make it happen.
1. Identify Your Most Critical Boundaries
First, you need to start by choosing the most important areas of your work that you want to protect. You can often determine this by looking for your trigger points.
Your trigger points are those times where someone’s actions continuously make you feel uncomfortable or upset.
For example, if a stakeholder keeps pushing to be involved in your project when they don’t need to be, this could be an area where you need to set a clear boundary. If people keep dumping work onto you and your team unexpectedly, this might be another.
In general, setting boundaries for every aspect of your work is unnecessary. It is only in certain areas where you will find people taking liberties and pushing your buttons. These areas need your attention.
2. Take a Position
The next step after you have identified your trigger points is to consciously take a position regarding the situation at hand. This really just means defining your stance on the problem, and this will become your boundary position.
For example, perhaps you find people booking early morning meetings with you, when you struggle to make it to work before 8am because of family commitments. Therefore, your position might be that you don’t work before 8am.
If a certain stakeholder is dumping work at random on you and your team, you might take the position that any work request needs to be logged in a system, where it will be prioritised against the work of the team.
As you might guess – you can’t set a boundary if you don’t have a clear position. And you can’t defend a position if you don’t know what it is! It can become very confusing for others if you aren’t able to define your requirements.
3. Automate Your Boundary
In some cases, you may be able to use a system or process to help you reinforce a boundary. This can work well for managing your time, for example.
You may be able to set your office hours in your work calendar to start at 8am. This sends a clear signal that this is the earliest you can attend meetings or other work commitments.
Or, you may book time in your calendar to complete specific tasks that are important to you. This locks that time away, meaning people won’t be able to book over it without your permission.
You could use a system to handle incoming work requests. Anything logged in there gets looked at, and other requests are ignored.
Being able to automate your boundaries is powerful and in many cases, quite achievable.
4. Be Consistent
Consistency is a huge part of setting boundaries at work. If you chop and change your position frequently, people won’t learn.
Let’s go back to our earlier examples:
- Early meetings: If you sometimes let people book early meetings with you, and sometimes push back on them, people become confused, because they don’t know what to expect.
- Workload: If you sometimes accept tasks by email, instead of through your preferred system, then people won’t know which one is your preferred approach.
- Time booking: When you only sometimes book specific time in your calendar to work on your important tasks, people will continue to book your time whenever they please.
Being consistent is critical, because it trains the people around you to behave in a certain way. As soon as you let people transgress your boundaries, there is a chance that they will continue to be disrespected.
It’s important to note that you won’t always get your own way. Sometimes, your boundaries will be incompatible with the needs of the people around you.
If you demand that you never work before 8am, but your manager needs you to come in earlier, then you’re likely to experience conflict. Therefore, some degree of flexibility may be needed.
As you begin setting boundaries at work, you will start to see these areas of potential conflict.
These conflicts are a perfect opportunity to have an open discussion about what you need, and why you’re trying to put boundaries in place.
You won’t win every battle, but at least by setting boundaries, you will put a stake in the ground. If your boundaries continue to be breached, you can then make a decision about whether your current workplace or role is suitable for you.
In many cases when you set a clear boundary about something that is important to you, people will simply respect it.
For example, if somebody blocks their calendar before 9am, I won’t generally book anything with them before that time. In the event that I really need their time before then, I’ll have a conversation.
The same thing will happen for you. Start setting boundaries at work, for the aspects that are most important to you.
This way, you can craft a working environment that helps you to feel calm, in control and capable in your leadership role.