Setting Boundaries at Work (My Recent Boundary Mistake)

Jordan Brown

I've been doing a lot of thinking about something lately.

Boundaries.

More specifically, what are they exactly, and why do they matter?

And after all this thinking, I changed my mind about boundaries, especially how they relate to managing others.

I realized I had been making a huge mistake in my application of boundaries in the workplace.

And what I decided in response has been transformative.

It's starting to change my life for the better--and changing my mental health in particular.

Setting Boundaries At Work: What I First Thought

I'm a bit embarrassed to write this now, but what I first thought about boundaries is that it's always right to be human-first and meet people where they are.

How could that go wrong? I used to think.

Now, after living through a few somewhat awkward conversations, I know how it can go wrong.

Because having open boundaries, or very few boundaries, might work when the relationship is friend-to-friend or family-member-to-family-member.

When both people value openness and sharing, there are no issues.

And it really doesn't matter much when you and another person aren't bound together by goals and objectives.

Going wherever the emotions take you, and following one another's lead and meeting each others' cues in the moment, is something that is completely fulfilling in a non-work relationship.

But with a work relationship, certain boundaries must be formed.

I learned the hard way, after being the peacemaker and the relationship-builder in most work conversations, that my social-worker mindset does not always apply to management situations.

In fact, there are times when it's counterproductive to try to manage as a social worker who lives by the code of ethics of full and complete empowerment and self-determination.

Because, recently, I've had a number of situations where I had to draw firm lines with others on my team. Where other people were simply not allowed to do whatever they wanted to.

Normally, this kind of action wasn't a problem for me.

But here's the big issue: because a few of my work relationships have  focused too much recently on emotional connection and shared meaning, my tough talk of objectives and non-negotiables came across as too harsh, surprising, and unwelcome.

I knew something had to change because it was getting downright uncomfortable.

Setting Boundaries for Managing Others and Beyond

If you're dealing with an issue where your currently boundary set-up isn't working for you, I want you to heed my advice, the advice I gathered after eating humble pie.

You see, I thought I was managing well--and I was, for certain situations...

But for others?

My lack of appropriate boundaries muddied the waters--and the productive nature of the relationships.

What I did to improve my management boundaries and learn more about good work boundaries in general

1.I asked multiple people for feedback.

And I was sincere in wanting it. A person can smell from a mile a way an insincere request for feedback. So I repeated my request, and I maintained open body language. And then I listened. No request for feedback seems sincere when a person is simply waiting for another person to stop talking only so that he can answer with a perfectly timed rebuttal.


2. I looked for patterns.

One piece of feedback aimed at helping you improve your functioning in a certain situation does not a pattern make! It's just an anecdote, and the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

But, once the patterns start to emerge, it's time to take it seriously. And what I heard was this:

"I appreciate that you care. I really do. But sometimes the focus is too much on my personal life, and I just want to focus on work."

"It's good I can share with you, but we don't need to start a conversation with asking about a problem I've brought up in the past."

"Sometimes, I just like work because it helps me feel good about how I'm doing in life, and just focusing on work successes naturally helps me feel better elsewhere."

Ouch.

Embarrassing.

I was off track with a number of direct reports.

I don't like the taste of humble pie at times, but it sure can be helpful to eat it.

What the Ego Thinks of Boundaries

This turned out to be a case of me against my ego.

My ego wanted me to believe I was doing an excellent job, ALL of the time.

But reality was telling me that I wasn't.

You might find this to be true for you as well.

How many times has your ego tried to warn you that changing your mind is a sign of weakness?

I'm guilty of this.

But you know what.

People who can take in information to improve their understanding of a situation should be admired.

That's what growing up and getting better is all about.

I'm about a week in to my new boundaries approach at work.

The personal conversations are still there, but I'm not seeking them out as much.

And I feel way mentally and emotionally drained as a result.

I now have a better understanding of boundaries when it comes to management in particular--and boundaries as tools for good mental health in general.

My ego doesn't love it.

But I do.