How to Create and Maintain Healthy Workplace Boundaries By Daniel Robin "So what happened to you? It’s like you’ve gone M.I.A. … missing for weeks…." "My job ate my life," Tom sighed, as the two high-tech workers sipped their half-decaf cappuccinos. "May I offer a suggestion? Push back a little. Your life is more important." "Yeah, but I’m actually into it," Tom explained, "and there’s so much to do – " "Great, and there always will be," she says with a wink. "You know you won’t do anybody any good if you fry." Like two nations caught in a territory dispute, human boundaries are invisible – and often violated. Boundaries are limits that are always present, spoken or unspoken, honored or overstepped. A so-called "healthy" boundary reflects balance between distance and intimacy, between time spent working and at leisure, between your interests and mine. Where Have All the Boundaries Gone? Do you remember a time before there was traffic? (Me neither, but I read about it.) When our cities were uncrowded, when the next town was a major journey, and the moon was … inconceivable? Now there’s fax technology and the Internet, the population explosion and jet travel … we are literally one big, gnarly community. Why then, you may ask, don’t we act like one? Probably because we’re literally in each other’s face, and it takes conscious effort to work out the healthy boundary thing. Also, the rules aren’t as clear as in nature, where animals set boundaries by marking out their unique territory. In the workplace … well, it’s not quite so obvious. With healthy interpersonal and personal/professional boundaries you can… Do your best work, contribute sustainably, ensuring adequate reward for your efforts. A healthy personal/professional boundary is the subtle key to maintaining life balance: work at your commitments, do not "over-perform" or say "yes" to unreasonable requests. Get clear on your limits and powerfully express them. Get results with literally anyone – even people you don’t happen to like, or with whom you seem to disagree Work well with those who have lousy boundaries. For example, take a coworker who has been staying late several evenings each week, and then snaps at you because you aren’t. Or the "human can-opener," prying into your personal affairs, or trying to "fix" you when you just wanted to vent. Then there’s the "time bandit" who doesn’t mind stealing your day, "Really, just 5 minutes" at a time. At first you can probably just ignore them, then give a subtle non-verbal hint like glancing at your watch and raising an eyebrow. If that doesn’t work, speak up and politely assert your healthy boundary. Otherwise, you’ll be "taken prisoner", and the victim-victimizer chain will spread. Its important to speak up about garden-variety interpersonal boundaries – when someone steps on toes, breaks a policy, or blows an agreement. Being direct demands respect. Permission is Better than Forgiveness How’s your skill at honoring other people’s boundaries? Do you remember to "ask permission" before invading their personal space? For example, when initiating a conversation, do you ask "Is this a good moment?" or "Do you have about 10 minutes to go over your comments or should I come back after lunch?" or "Are you open to discussing this project right now?" No matter what their response, this says you are aware that you are interrupting, you want their full attention, and are willing to hear their truth. Healthy boundaries are essential to getting things done and building relationships that last. Indeed, the practice of skillfully setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is as close to a "magic ticket" as anything I know. With healthy limits, you safely go about doing your best work; without them, either you or the company will eventually take a hit. What’s one boundary you’ll set this week? Skills to Set and Maintain Healthy Workplace Boundaries Setting healthy boundaries at work can be your saving grace; it can also be a daily testimonial to your courage and skill. Whether you’re the boss who has not enough staff and way too much to do, or you’re a member of that staff, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is an invisible and challenging art form – and a vital skill set for your sustained success. See if any of these scenarios sound familiar: Job Description from Hell. If other people continuously expect more than you can ever deliver, then there’s some work you need to do: begin to reset expectations based on reality. High Ambition, Low Satisfaction. Do you often have a hard time leaving the office when you say you will? And yet, you want to have it all? If you constantly work, work, work, and tell yourself you’re on the fast-track … indeed, you may be on the "fast-track" … to burning yourself out. Hint: push back a little. It’s darn near impossible to build a solid career and reputation for excellence when you can barely breathe. Speak Up for Balance. If you want to balance your work and your leisure, you generally know your limits and try to stand up for them, but alas, you keep getting squeezed out, this article series will give you some new tools to get your limits honored and your interests met. Setting healthy boundaries – simply stating your truth, from your experience, without fear of retaliation or of hurting the other person’s feelings – is not supposed to be hard. If this topic brings up some concerns or makes you a bit nervous, good! That’s the edge that will have you asserting what you know and want. The Place to Start Ideally, workplace boundary setting takes place in a context of an open discussion about responsibilities, goals and priorities; there’s mutual understanding about what needs to be done, and the timeframes are carefully negotiated. (And then, of course, "change happens," but what counts is having a workable agreement on the front end). However, even if such contracting didn’t happen up front, it probably isn’t too late to go for better agreements. How you express your limits, your strengths and your abilities is key to setting a boundary that gets respected. Here are three core skill areas to help get you there: 1. Know your limits, know what you want. By now, most of us set goals (a prioritized list of what you want), but do you know your limits? One client said, "I know them when I go beyond them. If I am unaware of what I cannot do, I’m likely to drown in that which I cannot see." Knowing your limits is a source of inner strength and helps you focus your energies on what you can do. To protect yourself from going "overboard," be organized and on top of your commitments, including knowing yourself and your strengths to give accurate estimates of timeframes (I generally take my best guess then double it). If you regularly put your priorities in writing, it will help you handle unplanned requests or the inevitable reprioritization in a professional, matter- of-fact way. What would written weekly and daily priorities look like for you? 2. Tactfully and openly communicate goals and limits. Sell your abilities by demonstrating what you can get done without selling yourself short by taking on too much. Put out there 100% of what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. When you talk about your limitations, focus on your positive intention, ask for help in doing your best work, and problem solve, don’t complain about the problem. Pay attention to how the other person is receiving your communication. Be open to feedback; better still, ask for feedback. 3. Be available to discuss differences and get to agreements. Listen and verify your understanding of the other person’s needs, interests and concerns. This is a time for using your best communication and win-win negotiation skills. Tune in to their concerns or limits, and look for simple ways to "work it out." What's a Healthy Boundary Between You and a Maniac? Hank says to me "It’ll never work," just two days after his team’s proposal was approved. Shirley says the reason the project is doomed is that nobody ever talks to her. I innocently ask "What can you do about that?" and she snaps "I don’t have time for this!" and walks out of the room. Whoa! How do you deal with people who are stressed out, adversarial, resistant and argumentative? Tell them to take a vacation? Or those so-called "difficult" people who seem bent on being just plain annoying? I’m not talking about setting garden-variety boundaries like asking a co-worker to give you direct feedback when all you’re getting is covert criticism After nearly being taken hostage on the SS Maniac, I’d like to offer the following tips for setting a respectful boundary when other people get "emotionally hijacked," when the stakes are high, or when dealing with a conflict ... once set, such boundaries can save you (and your peers) hours of needless suffering. 1. Attempt to mirror what’s going on for the other person. "Oh, you’ve got a deadline, so it’s important that we talk right this instant?" If I can understand and acknowledge something about that person’s agenda or apparent situation (their issue, problem, concern, or frustration, … whatever it is), they will be better prepared for step #2. I admit that if I’m getting a bit frustrated myself, I’ll risk combining this step with the next. When I remember to pause and notice what they want, both our stress levels drop a bit. Remember, if it helps you to listen, just say to yourself "This is not about me." 2. Handle resistance or negativity as necessary. Even if I’m the one who is resisting, I’ll move the situation forward if my speaking takes shared responsibility for the dynamic. I might say: "How can we work this out so that you can get what you want, and I can finish my work and still leave by 6:00?" By itself, this doesn’t resolve anything, but it does set the tone for constructive, collaborative problem solving. Or, if they seem bent on blame or negativity, I might say "I can see you are upset [about something]… let’s stop here and pick it up again when I’m less distracted …." Or, "This is awful … you’re out of time and I’m booked. What are you going to do?" Each is an attempt to acknowledge both their situation and yours, while reasserting who is responsible for theirs (they are!). 3. Directly assert what I want. If the person or issue still looms (hint not taken), it’s probably going to be necessary to directly assert what you want. Of course, what comes before this step is fundamental to setting boundaries every day: (1) Know your limits and be clear about what you want, (2) Tactfully and openly communicate those goals and limits when the other person is able to listen, and (3) Be available to discuss or negotiate any differences. So, if you wish to say "no" – your established priorities are more important than the issue they represent – then a healthy, adult boundary might sound like: "Let me see if I have this straight; you’re supposed to have this done in one hour and you want my help? Sorry, that doesn't work for me." Or, if their need is more important to you: "Okay, I’ll help out this time, and when we’re done, let’s talk about how you can make sure this never happens again.…" Sometimes you might need to assert what you want several times in a row. Their ability to listen at such times will be minimal, so stay steady. If someone seems intent on picking a fight or debating a fact that you see differently, you can simply decline to participate: "I’m not available for this conversation," "I’m not willing to argue about this," or smile and say in an even tone, "This conversation just ended." If you repeatedly state "I’m not willing to fight with you about that," you also send an implied secondary message: "So, what else would you like to talk about?"
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