People Management
5 min.

Boundaries at Work and How to Set Them

Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair
Last updated on 6 Dec. 2023
Published on 27 Jan. 2021
Employés qui manque d'énergie au travail car elle n'a pas su mettre ses limites avec son employeur

Let’s talk about personal boundaries at work. Contrary to popular belief, setting clear boundaries doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking about others or being an open and generous boss. Rather, it means listening to yourself and understanding the importance of self-respect.

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By setting your boundaries, you tell others: “Here’s what’s acceptable for me, and here’s what won’t fly.”

People often hesitate to set their limits for fear of letting others down or displeasing them.

These people would rather turn a deaf ear to their own needs and accept what is asked of them. As a manager, you should keep in mind that this bad habit impacts not only yourself, but also your whole organization.

Do Fewer Limitations Really Mean More Freedom?

At first glance, your need for acknowledgement and validation at work may appear at odds with the ability to say no. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how to do it.

Let’s take an example.

An employee comes to you at the last minute with a time off request, and it looks important to him. While earning you his gratitude, agreeing that request would overburden the rest of the team for the day. You agree regardless.

Does this scenario look familiar to you?

As a manager, you must establish clear organizational guidelines: for example, time-off requests are to be made at least one week in advance, directly through the scheduling application.

In the long run, failing to set clear boundaries will cause you a great deal of negative emotion and have direct, personal repercussions: frustration, declining confidence, stress, exhaustion, etc. And that’s just the short of it.

Some might think that it’s every employee’s dream to have a flexible, malleable boss who systematically agrees to everything.

Quite the contrary. The absence of solid boundaries and well-defined rules creates instability and insecurity in a team.

Lines gradually blur between what is acceptable and what isn’t.

You might even lose your staff’s trust altogether; they may raise concerns about your ability to make well thought-out decisions that factor in the organization’s operational smoothness.

How to Better Set Boundaries at Work?

Do you have trouble setting your boundaries at work… or are you downright unable to do so? Here is a 3-step process to help you.

Identify Your Boundaries

Some introspection required.

  • List the situations where you tend to say yes against your will.
  • Add to the list all instances where you know you should speak up or take action, but don’t.
  • Ask yourself: is it because I’m afraid to disappoint, or because I’d feel guilty for saying no? Is it because I enjoy keeping up the appearance of a generous employer or that of a devoted, hard-working employee?

Recognizing your limits requires that you listen to your feelings. If you naturally react strongly to a situation, it’s a safe bet that you’re crossing an important threshold.

Know Your Boundaries

What are the impacts of crossing a personal boundary?

  • You accept (yet again) to work more than you had agreed to; fatigue sets in, you miss out on some family time, you break an important commitment, etc. In the long run, your performance worsens due to exhaustion. Remind yourself of those risks when you’re about to step over the line.
  • Develop your emotional intelligence, and work on managing your emotions. Accept that you need validation and recognition, or that your desire to please or to avoid unpleasant conversations is what makes you a yes-person. And stay rational.

Assert Your Boundaries

You have defined a personal boundary and know the impacts of crossing it. It’s now time to plan how to protect yourself should it be compromised. What are your expectations towards the people you interact with?

An employee wants you to talk to a client on his behalf because of a delicate situation he’s uncomfortable managing. However, you know that it’s his job and that it would be good for him to get out of his comfort zone. Besides, you are swamped with work. How will you turn him down?

Be firm and convinced.

Remember that people are free to ask you anything they want.

It’s always up to you to draw the line. If you’re speaking with an employee, make sure to remind them of organizational rules as appropriate.

Motivate Your Team to Do the Same

The importance of happiness in the workplace is well established.

A team player who’s strong enough to assert themselves is a great asset. By knowing and respecting their own boundaries, that person is that much more balanced, stable, and motivated.

But what about those who have yet to set their limits? How can you motivate them to do so? It’s simple: lead by example.

Lead by example.

State and enforce your personal boundaries and, whatever you do, don’t be shy about it or feel like you need to make excuses.

It may not feel natural at first, but you know the saying: Fake it till you make it! I’ll even take it up a peg: Fake it till you become it.

Don’t hesitate to tell your staff that they’re not expected to be yes-people either.

Here are a few ideas:

💡 Encourage your team to establish clear work schedules and hours of unavailability. For example, Google Calendar lets you gray out the parts of the day where you’re unavailable.

💡 Don’t rely on text messages or phone calls; use a messaging tool specifically designed for work.

💡 Ask your staff to notify you when they have too much work or feel overburdened.

Set Limits, Don’t Push

The next time you think about pushing your limits, ask yourself why you want to do it. Then, consider the impacts of doing so. You’ll likely be surprised to see how rarely crossing your boundaries ends up being worth it, be it in the workplace or in your personal life.

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