In simple words, boundaries establish for others (and for us) what is ok and what is not, and why.

The skill of setting boundaries is usually something that we learn from an early age, and our parents and teachers help us develop it.

Boundaries are helpful in all aspects of our life – school, relationships, work, and love. Studies show that healthy boundaries are good for our well-being and are part of our self-care strategy.

What makes healthy boundaries important at work?

With work being a big part of our life, it is difficult to separate which relationships are private and which are professional. At times this leads to conflicts, misunderstandings and complications.

From my experience as a leader and a coach working with leaders, I have many examples in mind of how poorly established boundaries harm the functioning of a team or personal relationships at work. Team members get hurt, work suffers, and time is spent on recovery and rekindling the relationships.

Healthy boundaries are important for leaders and team members alike. Leaders have the key role in establishing the boundaries, their flexibility and how they can be re-negotiated.

What if we don’t set boundaries?

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”

Brené Brown

Tips for setting healthy boundaries

  1. Observe and respect other people’s boundaries. Open your eyes and ears to how other people set or don’t set boundaries and how they are respecting them. Do a mini audit on how you set your boundaries and if you break them, how they cause you pressure and stress. The next step is to start re-contracting your boundaries with the people around you.

  1. Set limits. Establish times when you won’t be available or need space for other people and activities. A very common example is a colleague that is regularly coming for a “quick chat” at times you are busy with an important task to finish. Although you enjoy having these chats, there is nothing wrong with setting a time limit upfront (“You know that I need to submit the quarterly report today? I  only have five minutes for a break if you don’t mind.”) and sticking with it. Time boundaries will also be when you can reach out to people and when they can reach out to you after working hours, and for which types of issues this is acceptable.

  1. Learn to say, “Positive No” – “No is a complete sentence,” said the American author Anne Lamott. It is difficult to turn down requests from others because we don’t want them to feel rejected. Saying “no” is important to avoid feeling put upon in service of other people’s goals. “The Positive ‘No'” is a method for saying no without making others feel rejected. There are three steps to take: Step one – clearly state your priorities’; Step two – forward a clear explanation of the conflict that prevents you from following the request; Step three – offer to help in another way.

  1. What is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable to discuss at work? This is an age-old debate about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to talk about at work. We should be avoiding conversations about politics, religion and sex. The general rule of thumb is that if you feel that a topic is out of the “safe list” you need to avoid it.

  1. Prepare for resistance. When you start setting boundaries this might surprise the people around you, and they will try to push them back, not knowing what is going on. Make sure that you explain very clearly why you are doing this. Give space and time to the other to adjust and get used to the new boundaries. Don’t forget that boundaries can be loose or rigid, and healthy boundaries are somewhere in between.

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