How To Set Boundaries At Work

How To Set Boundaries At Work? Guide For Managers

Have you ever found yourself answering mail late at night or bent over the desk long after work hours are over? If yes, there is a good chance that you have overextended or even crossed boundaries between your personal and professional lives. As the world adjusted to a global pandemic, employees’ need for better boundary management became even more apparent: the work hours often spilled into non-work ones. 

Research suggests this creates a role between our work and at home, leading to higher stress and emotional turmoil. One way to break this rut is to set boundaries at work. Boundaries mean clearly defining what is acceptable and what is not regarding work expectations, communication, and personal time. 

In this blog, we will discuss the impact of undefined boundaries on productivity and well-being, the need for boundaries at work, and how to recognize signs of poor boundary management. We will also provide examples of common workplace boundary challenges and strategies for preparing to set boundaries at work effectively. Finally, we will guide you through a step-by-step process for establishing boundaries, explore different types of boundaries at work managers should consider, and offer tips for maintaining boundaries without alienating your team members. So, let’s begin our journey to creating a healthier work environment!

Picture this: There’s a manager, let’s call her Sarah, who loves protecting her and her team’s peace. She has defined a few things before starting work: she loves spending time with her family and not answering calls during it. Conversely, she avoids contacting her team outside specific hours. 

Similarly, while taking up tasks from her seniors, she considers the bandwidth of her team and takes up only a realistically achievable amount of work. It doesn’t mean not striving for greatness, but it saves her from micromanaging her team to the edge of burnout. Do you see what key idea is at play here? Boundaries.

Boundaries at work refer to the limits or guidelines that you can establish to protect your physical, emotional, and mental well-being while maintaining professionalism and productivity in the workplace. These boundaries help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance, manage expectations, and navigate interpersonal situations effectively

Boundaries at work can be about multiple areas, you might declare your personal chat box unreachable for professional matters, or you can set forth that you will not respond to work emails outside hours. In all the forms, boundaries are a tool to obtain manager effectiveness when they are used well. 

What types of boundaries should managers consider?

As a manager, it is important to consider different types of boundaries to promote a healthy and productive work environment. Here are a few examples of boundaries at work you should consider:

Professional Boundaries
  • Not discussing situations and issues that involve private and confidential matters
  • Not participating in a decision where you have a personal stake
  • Upholding the ethical standards and values set forth by your organization
  • Taking up a realistic task load
Emotional and Mental Health Boundaries
  • Prioritize personal care by setting aside time for hobbies and self-care activities
  • Demonstrate support and empathy for employee’s situations without getting overtly involved or emotionally attached
  • Support employees’ mental health by empowering them to advocate for their own needs and boundaries
Personal and Physical Boundaries
  • Respecting personal space, such as preferring handshakes over hugs
  • Keeping interactions strictly professional by avoiding inappropriate contact
  • Staying balanced in relationships by avoiding personal friendships and relations that can lead to conflict of interest

What if I do not have boundaries at work?

Does this seem excessive and unnecessary? Let’s see what happens when we do not set boundaries with the help of another manager. Let’s call him John. 

John is a team manager who wants to get things done and often forgets there are limits. Hence, when you meet John after work, he’s still thinking of work, probably with a task list open on his mobile device, while simultaneously texting his team for updates. The next morning begins with similar abruptness for John because the team is ready with questions about their last night’s work. Tired and frustrated, John becomes quite aggressive in his responses and leaves the employees even more confused and clueless about the way ahead.

Signs you don’t have boundaries in the workplace

In John’s case, we notice several signs of missing boundaries at work: 

  • Resentment toward work or team members that’s always chasing you
  • Regularly being at work even after the hours are over 
  • Overstepping in emotional areas and unhealthy communication patterns 
  • Excessive anxiety about updates
  • Burnout, constant tiredness, and decreased performance 
The result is obvious from these lines.

What happens when you do not create workplace boundaries? 

First, as we see in the case of John, we are never off work. Even outside, it feels like we are near our work, and our identity and self-esteem become deeply tied to those neat checklists of our dreams. As a result, a person without workplace boundaries tends to overwork to the brink of exhaustion. Exhaustion brings together its own set of health and emotional issues for one to deal with.

Second, not having boundaries in place as a manager creates several second-order challenges. As we see in John’s story, his team starts emulating his behavior. The unhealthy patterns of overworking, excessively sharing updates, and constant check-ins trickle down to the entire team. John’s aggressive remarks further add to the mess by setting up an example of unhealthy coping mechanisms and badly dealing with vulnerability.

Third, there are many social and emotional ramifications to handle that do not directly concern work. For instance, a person without boundaries for their availability at work is not able to connect and engage with their friends and family fully. Their role of an employee consistently overpowers any other, throwing work-life balance out for a toss. 

Is there a bad way to set boundaries at work?

Of course! As with everything else, boundaries can be a tool to take a team downhill when they are not set properly. This is especially a concern for managers because if you are sitting too far away from glass walls, your team might not be able to alarm you about the impending danger at all. Imagine you have set strict boundaries around your availability and communication, stating you are only accessible during specific hours. However, this becomes an excuse to avoid responding to urgent requests or participating in important meetings, even when your presence is necessary for team collaboration or problem-solving.

On the other hand, this can be a frustrating experience to bear from the side of a team member, too. For instance, what if a team member establishes clear task boundaries, stating they will only handle specific assignments within their job description? However, they consistently refuse to take on additional tasks or assist colleagues, citing their boundaries as a reason to avoid responsibility and workload.

Similarly, many such concerns can arise around the misuse of boundaries at work by employees if they are not constructed and understood properly.

Establishing boundaries in the workplace requires a thoughtful and step-by-step approach. Here is how you can effectively set boundaries:

Preparing to set boundaries: What managers need at step 0

Before implementing boundaries in the workplace, managers need to take specific steps to ensure they are prepared. Here are a few key things managers need to consider:

  • Self-assessment: First, managers should reflect on their own boundaries at work and identify areas where they may need to set or reinforce boundaries. Self-awareness is crucial in effectively communicating and implementing boundaries. Reflection questions and feedback from your team and peers can be helpful in identifying the areas that you do not wish to negotiate.
  • Communication strategies: Managers should develop effective communication strategies to clearly communicate boundaries to their team members. This involves setting expectations, providing examples, and engaging in open and transparent discussions about what boundaries are and how they can help. While taking up this step, take charge and set an example for your team to enable their healthy boundaries at work, too. Focus on setting expectations correctly and effectively, sharing how boundaries and accountability should be balanced.

Step 1: Define Your Boundaries Clearly

The first step in establishing boundaries at work is to define them clearly. Take the time to reflect on your personal limits and priorities. Consider what is important to you in terms of work-life balance and well-being. This will help you identify specific areas where you need to set boundaries.

For example, you may decide to set boundaries around your work hours by clearly defining the times when you will be fully dedicated to work and the times when you will prioritize your personal time. This may involve setting specific start and end times for your workday or designating certain days as personal time, like this:

“I am available for work-related calls and messages from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday. Outside of these hours, please refrain from contacting me unless it’s an emergency. I will respond to non-urgent messages during my next working hours.”

Avoid being vague as follows:

“Feel free to contact me whenever you need assistance or have questions. I’m always available to help.”

By defining your boundaries clearly, you set the foundation for effectively communicating and implementing them in the workplace. This step is essential for creating a healthier work-life balance and protecting your well-being.

Step 2: Communicate Your Boundaries Effectively

Once you have defined your boundaries at work, the next step is to communicate them effectively to your team members and colleagues. Clear and direct communication is crucial to ensure that your boundaries are understood and respected.

Start by communicating your boundaries to your direct reports or team members. Clearly express your expectations and provide specific examples to illustrate what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of work-related tasks, communication, and personal time. This helps create a shared understanding and sets the stage for a healthier work environment like in the message shared below.

“Team, I want to ensure we maintain a healthy work-life balance while also staying productive. From now on, let’s reserve non-urgent communication for our regular working hours, which are from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday. If you have urgent matters outside of these hours, please feel free to reach out, but otherwise, let’s respect each other’s personal time. Does that sound good to everyone?”

Additionally, communicate your boundaries to your colleagues and other stakeholders. Clearly articulate your limits and expectations for communication, availability, and work-related demands. This helps establish a culture of respect and accountability around boundaries.

On the other hand, badly communicated boundaries in the workplace sound like impositions, as we see here:

“Effective immediately, all non-urgent communication should be limited to working hours. Urgent matters can be addressed outside of these hours. Thanks.”

The direct and impersonal tone of the message provides little scope for communication and context to the others, thus moving away from the key idea of mutual respect and understanding while setting boundaries. Hence, remember to use assertive communication to express your needs and expectations as seen in the first example. Use “I” statements to clearly communicate your perspective and needs without assigning blame or becoming defensive. This approach fosters open and honest communication, which is essential for establishing effective boundaries.

Step 3: Implement and Enforce Boundaries

Implementing and enforcing boundaries at work is a critical step in establishing a healthier work environment. Once you have defined and communicated your boundaries, it’s important to consistently enforce them.

Lead by example and set a personal example for your team members and colleagues. Demonstrate your commitment to your boundaries by consistently adhering to them. This sends a powerful message and encourages others to respect your boundaries, as we can see here:

“I appreciate your dedication, but I’ve noticed you’ve been reaching out after hours for non-urgent matters. As we discussed, let’s try to keep non-urgent communication within our working hours to respect everyone’s personal time. If it’s urgent, feel free to contact me anytime. Let’s work together to maintain a healthy balance.”

Be firm but respectful when addressing boundary violations. If someone encroaches upon your boundaries at work, assertively remind them of your expectations and express the impact their actions have on your well-being or productivity. But while you are at it. Ensure that your tone is not harsh or reprimanding someone. Think of things from their perspective too and help them understand yours instead of reacting like this:

“I’ve told you all repeatedly not to contact me outside of working hours for anything that’s not an emergency. Can’t you follow simple instructions? This behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Moreover, you can seek support from your supervisor or HR team if necessary. If you encounter persistent boundary violations or face challenges in enforcing your boundaries in the workplace, reach out to the appropriate channels for guidance and support. They can provide additional resources and assistance in addressing any issues that may arise.

Remember that enforcing boundaries is a continuous process. Stay vigilant and consistently reinforce your boundaries to maintain a healthy work environment and protect your well-being.

Step 4: Handling Pushback and Disagreements

When setting boundaries at work, it is common to encounter pushback or disagreements. It’s important to handle these situations calmly and assertively to maintain the integrity of your boundaries and promote a respectful work environment.

Anticipate and prepare for pushback or disagreements when setting boundaries. Be ready to explain the rationale behind your boundaries and how they contribute to your well-being and productivity. This can help others understand the importance of respecting your boundaries. For instance, if someone shares frustration at your communication boundaries at work, you can address it as follows:

“I understand your concerns, and I appreciate your feedback. Let’s discuss how we can adjust our communication practices to better support everyone’s needs. Perhaps we can explore setting aside dedicated times for more focused work and communication blocks for collaborative discussions. What do you think?”

Offer alternative solutions or compromises when appropriate. Flexibility and understanding can help address concerns and find a middle ground. However, it’s important to maintain the integrity of your boundaries and not compromise your well-being or values.

When faced with pushback or disagreements, stay calm and assertive. Clearly and respectfully restate your boundaries, reminding others of your expectations and the impact their actions have on your well-being or productivity. Avoid becoming defensive or engaging in arguments as seen here:

“I’ve made my decision, and that’s final. It’s not up for discussion. Follow the rules or face the consequences.”

Remember that handling pushback and disagreements is part of the boundary-setting process. By addressing these challenges assertively and respectfully, you establish a culture of respect and accountability around boundaries in the workplace.

Step 5: Regularly Review and Adjust Boundaries

Regularly review your boundaries at work to assess their effectiveness and make any necessary adjustments. Consider factors such as your workload, personal commitments, and overall well-being when evaluating your boundaries. Be open to adjusting your boundaries as circumstances change. Workload fluctuations, personal obligations, and other factors may require you to modify your boundaries to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Flexibility is key in ensuring that your boundaries continue to serve you well. For instance, you can take up this discussion with your team like:

“I’ve noticed some challenges with our current communication boundaries, particularly with project collaboration. Let’s brainstorm together and see if there are any adjustments we can make to better support our workflow and productivity. Does anyone have any suggestions or concerns?”

This shows proactive leadership and values feedback from your team members and colleagues. Their input can provide great insights into the impact of your boundaries and help identify areas for improvement or adjustment. Transparency and communication are key factors in this review and adjustment, without these, the changes can very quickly turn into diktats like this:

“Effective immediately, we are adjusting our communication boundaries. All non-urgent communication will now be restricted to email only, and response times are expected to be within 24 hours. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Remember that boundaries are not set in stone. They should evolve as your needs and circumstances change. Regularly reviewing and adjusting your boundaries ensures that they remain relevant and supportive of your well-being and productivity.

A common concern among managers while setting boundaries would be that their team might end up being alone on the field. And this obviously happens when the boundaries are badly set and reinforced. If you see boundaries as dynamic tools to get things done and keep reviewing them, you can maintain the delicate balance between healthy relationships at work and workplace boundaries. Maintaining boundaries without alienating your team members is essential for creating a positive work environment. Here are a few strategies to achieve this:

  • Use positive reinforcement: Recognize and acknowledge when your team members respect and adhere to your boundaries. Provide positive feedback and reinforcement to encourage their continued respect for boundaries.
  • Lead by example: Maintain your boundaries and demonstrate the benefits of a healthy work-life balance. By setting a positive example, you inspire your team members to prioritize their well-being and establish their own boundaries.
  • Embrace leadership qualities: Be approachable and supportive as a leader. Encourage open communication and create a culture that values boundaries and well-being. By fostering a positive work environment, you can support your team members while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Encouraging members to set their own boundaries is essential for their personal growth and well-being. Here are some ways to support and empower your team in setting their boundaries:

First, focus on creating a safe space where team members feel comfortable expressing their needs and boundaries without fear of judgment or retribution. You can start by taking a lead on the process through flexibility in work schedules, remote work options, and time off. This allows team members to align their work with their personal commitments and priorities.

Second, clearly communicate the organization’s expectations regarding work-life balance and the importance of setting boundaries. Encourage team members to prioritize self-care and well-being while remaining the custodian of organizational values and goals. In this process, demonstrate the importance of setting boundaries by setting and respecting your own. Share your experiences and challenges with boundary-setting to inspire and motivate your team.

Lastly, sometimes your team members might be conflicted while setting boundaries at work. Offer resources, training, and support to help team members develop the skills necessary to set and maintain boundaries effectively. This can include workshops, coaching, or access to mental health resources. Moreover, acknowledge and celebrate team members who successfully establish and maintain their boundaries. This recognition will encourage others to do the same.

By encouraging team members to set their own boundaries, you empower them to prioritize their well-being and achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Still confused about workplace boundaries? Have a chat with Risely’s AI coach, Merlin to get rid of all the doubts and questions in your mind. Merlin can help you in three ways: 

  1. Situational discussion: Talk about boundaries and throw all your questions in. What are boundaries? Why should you build them? Is your boundary a good one or a bad one? Let Merlin think about everything that’s confusing you.
  2. Skill development: The boundaries are set, but skills are keeping you stuck. Assess and improve yourself in critical areas like assertive communication and a growth mindset with Merlin.
  3. Role-plays: Is some team members’ potential reaction keeping you away from setting boundaries? Are you dealing with constant violations with no idea how to address them? Play it out with Merlin, who will become your partner and coach in getting such difficult conversations right.
Start now: Free trial with Merlin

Setting boundaries at work is crucial for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and fostering a productive environment. By clearly defining and communicating your boundaries, you can prevent burnout, improve well-being, and enhance team dynamics. Remember to regularly review and adjust your boundaries as needed. Use positive reinforcement techniques and lead by example to encourage boundary respect. Navigating difficult conversations around boundaries requires assertive yet respectful communication. Building a supportive ecosystem where everyone’s boundaries are valued is key. Ultimately, prioritizing boundaries benefits both managers and their teams, leading to a more harmonious and efficient workplace.

Let’s review your leadership skills real quick!

Check out Risely’s range of leadership skill assessments for free and explore your areas of growth.

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