It’s time to set boundaries at work, or you’re going to be doomed to follow other people’s agendas and might never be able to focus on your own priorities or goals.
As you advance into your mid and late career, it’s even more important to set boundaries at work and concentrate more on working on your purpose. They not only help you achieve a healthy work-life balance but also help differentiate you from others and develop your own expertise and leadership. Read on to learn how to set boundaries at work rather than turn to quiet quitting and stop sacrificing your success.
“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is the title of a popular 1981 Hall & Oates song that actually lays the groundwork for this idea.
Easy, ready, willin’, overtime
Where does it stop?
Where do you dare me?
To draw the line?
You’ve got the body
Now you want my soul
Don’t even think about it
Say, “No, go!”
Lyrics by John Oates, Daryl Hall & Sara Allen © 1981 Sony Music Entertainment
While the lyrics appear to refer to a manipulative lover, in reality, they refer to the cutthroat environment of the music industry that Hall and Oates found themselves navigating as they advanced their careers. So it’s quite appropriate to use this song in the context of setting boundaries and pushing back on unreasonable expectations and demands in the workplace.
Compromise, Yes! Surrender, No!
Compromise means you’re willing to give in order to get. It’s a mutual agreement where both parties agree to meet in the middle and work out differences. Surrender, on the other hand, is disproportionate. It means giving up and giving in without getting anything in return.
While being a generous co-worker is good, preserving a balance is necessary. Give from the overflow. This means giving when you’ve taken care of your own responsibilities first (to your job, to your health, to your family, to your aspirations, etc.). The tally is qualitative, not quantitative.
Remember: having great work relationships is important, but not at the expense of your values, your goals, or your sense of well-being.
Do you feel that you’re taking care of yourself and your goals? If not, you may be allowing your workplace boundaries to be breached.
Three Sets of Personal Boundaries
There are three general areas where your interpersonal boundaries are going to be challenged. While they are related, each one entails a slightly different approach to dealing with potential incursions.
While we are primarily dealing with boundary issues at work, your professional responsibilities have an impact on what happens at home. So you want to balance your work life with your personal life and learn how to support those boundaries in both environments.
Setting Personal Boundaries at Work with Your Manager
Your relationship with your manager is key, and it can be the most difficult to manage if your manager doesn’t respect your boundaries, or is inconsistent in their dealings with you. Since you report to them, you want to deliver great value in your role. While it may be challenging to set up, learning to preserve boundaries will help you achieve this. The tricky part is getting them to understand and agree.
There are two ways to set boundaries at work with your manager:
Set Up an “Entrance Interview”
This is an innovative practice that is beginning to gain traction in some more progressive companies. Unlike an “Exit Interview,” which happens when you’re on your way out the door, the “Entrance Interview” ideally takes place in the onboarding stage.
The primary goal of this meeting is for your manager to get to know you better (e.g., your working style, strengths, or what you need from them to succeed), this is also an opportunity for you to:
- Set realistic boundaries and expectations for your workload
- Request specific time blocks for focused work
- Identify and get buy-in on your short, medium, and long-term career goals
- Clarify communication protocols (e.g., emailing or texting after working hours) and establish rules
Once you agree with these “terms of conditions,” make your discussion official. Get it in writing by sending a confirming email to your manager. While they may forget about the commitment(s) they made in your Entrance Interview, and may protest down the road when you remind them of your agreement, you… have it in writing. This makes it harder for them to go back on their word, and holds them accountable, including to others in the company. This includes their manager – and HR.
If you never got the opportunity to conduct an Entrance Interview when you started your current job, it’s not too late. See if your manager is willing to do this now — perhaps as part of a regular check-in or as a part of your annual review.
Manage Your Manager
Your relationship with your manager is critical. It can impact your performance, growth, and overall satisfaction at work. To prevent frustrations and ensure you set healthy boundaries with your manager, it may be necessary to manage them more effectively than they are managing you.
Here are two effective strategies to consider:
- Discuss rather than confront. For example, if you think your manager is unfair, overbearing, or impatient, ask questions to understand their perspective and resolve any issues. By taking a neutral, proactive, problem-solving attitude rather than reacting negatively or being confrontational, you might get them to change direction and be more open to your suggestions.
- Anticipate: The more you get to know your manager, the more you’ll be able to see a problem before it arises. Look for opportunities to alert them to the possible outcomes of certain decisions and protect them from potential blowback. In your own work, think ahead to how they are going to react to your decisions or deliverables. Be prepared to defend your work, including gathering support from others. This can include proofing/editing your reports before you submit them, or taking advantage of a colleague’s insight based on their longer experience working on the manager’s team. Invest time to gain a better understanding of your manager’s work style and preferences to enhance your collaboration.
Remember, regardless of the situation you might find yourself in with your manager, maintaining a professional demeanor, being constructive, and showing respect helps build trust and earns you credits in their “emotional bank account.”
Setting Boundaries at Work with Co-Workers
While you probably have mostly good relationships with your co-workers, there may be one or two people who are constantly pulling you off your center. Whether they demand your attention, have unwanted opinions about how you do your job, or try to draw you into office politics, steer clear.
Remember, this behavior is not a reflection on you, but rather a manifestation of their own challenges.
So don’t take it personally. Adopt a neutral, even serene attitude and remain composed. Work at setting time boundaries and limits. These could be scheduling a specific meeting for them to voice their concerns or deflecting their attention elsewhere by suggesting ways they can solve their problems, including research, classes, and other company resources.
Another effective tool to defuse tension could be to just listen to their perspectives. Ask open-ended questions and, whenever possible, shift the focus to them and away from you.
Pro Tip: Enforce time constraints at the outset of the conversation. For instance, you could state, “I have five minutes available before my next meeting. How can I help you?”
By periodically checking the time and reminding your co-worker of the remaining minutes, you can effectively direct the conversation toward its objective while maintaining control of the situation. This approach not only demonstrates respect for your time but also fosters a more productive and efficient work environment.
Setting Boundaries About Work with Spouse/Partner/Family
Although your family (spouse, partner, kids, parents) value your work, they also want you to spend quality time with them. So if you already have a demanding job with boundary-related challenges, earning their support and preventing an imbalance between work and home is critical. Here are several ways to do this:
- Identify and order top priorities. Prioritize your commitments and negotiate an agreement with loved ones on what your primary contributions should be. Regularly review these priorities to adapt to changing circumstances. Make sure they understand your work responsibilities. If they know what you do and what forces you are dealing with, they can be more supportive.
- Set clear guidelines for work interruptions. Your family needs to know when you’re unavailable because of your work commitments. This might include regularly-scheduled work meetings, or time that you set aside during the week(or maybe the weekend) to work uninterrupted.. Build trust by sticking to those guidelines. Try to anticipate when you’ll violate or shift those guidelines, so you can communicate and negotiate with your family beforehand.
- Engage your family in your work. Involving your spouse, partner, and family in your “why” and sharing your goals, wins, and challenges not only strengthens your relationship but also helps them understand and support your career.
- Be positive and constructive. Don’t do your “dirty work laundry” at home. You may share frustrations privately with your spouse or partner but always show a positive, solution-oriented attitude. Be “stoic” in the best sense: look for learning opportunities and model constructive behavior.
- Overdeliver at home. Actively seek opportunities to show appreciation for your family. This could involve planning surprise events, sending gifts, and expressing gratitude.
Although these tips may not sound like “setting boundaries,” they’re designed to create an overall positive lifestyle. They set you up for healthy relationships and expectations and serve as ways to make positive deposits into your family’s “emotional bank account.”.
Establishing a high level of trust at home will make your family more willing to compromise and give you the leeway to address work concerns when necessary.
Remember: By maintaining a healthy work-life balance and earning the support of your loved ones, you can thrive both professionally and personally.
Best Practices Across All Areas When Setting Professional Boundaries
- Minimize interruptions. If you want to maintain maximum productivity, minimizing distractions is critical. Consider setting time rules. For example, according to studies, recovering from an interruption can take over 20 minutes. So if you’re on a deadline and trying to do “deep focus” work, you can’t afford to get distracted.
- Set “Focus Time” signals. These signals are designed to let others know that you are currently working on a task and need to concentrate. For example, you can use big headphones to shut out noise and subtly signal to others that you’re concentrating. You can also put up signs on your computer monitor, or enlist a “Focus Partner” who will run interference for you when you’re focusing. (Make sure to reciprocate and do the same for them to help them set their own boundaries).
- Don’t close the door. While this is the traditional signal for Do Not Disturb, it can also be off-putting and unnecessarily distancing — especially at home. Use the closed-door technique sparingly and only if you really need to isolate yourself from unusual noise or commotion (e.g., when you have an important meeting). If you successfully communicate your boundaries in other ways, you will likely not feel the need to seal yourself in your office or another sanctum.
- Make a deal. If someone is insistent on interrupting you or overstepping your boundaries, but you still believe it would be wise to respond to their need, make a deal with them. Extract a quid-pro-quo from them as a condition of interrupting or distracting you. As with all negotiations, write it down, or have at least two witnesses to have proof of this conversation in case they “forget.”
- Over-prepare your week. If you’re in a busy and intense work environment, prepare a set of must-do tasks for the week. This will help you fulfill your top projects and meet your longer-term goals as well as ensure that you stay on track and make the most of your work time.
Bonus: Download this helpful scheduling template from productivity expert Carl Pullein to help you with this routine. Keep your sheet with you and look for opportunities to address your goals as the week progresses.
Special Note: Toxic Behavior
Ad hominem attacks or other abusive, dismissive, or derisive behaviors should never be tolerated. Despite this, toxic behaviors often persist in some work environments where management is either untrained or uncomfortable with confronting them (especially if the perpetrator is a high-level manager or partner).
Bad actors and bullies are emboldened by inaction. Many workers tolerate these low levels of abuse and boundary-crossing because the perpetrators are smart enough to stop before doing enough damage. Nevertheless, their behavior is abusive and must be addressed.
The most effective way to handle these individuals is to confront them privately and unequivocally from the start. Seek advice, support, and tactical tips from your HR representative or a counselor or psychologist specializing in workplace issues.
Let the Magic Begin
Successfully learning to set professional boundaries opens up your world to a greater flow of ideas and helps you take the first step to unlock your full potential. By taking control of your time and energy, you can work towards your long-term goals with greater ease and fulfillment.
You may be pleasantly surprised by the sense of harmony and clarity that follows as you take control of your environment and make old boundary violations recede into the past. It may indeed take you some time to adjust to your new freedom to do and be you.
Start your journey to setting healthy work boundaries now! Leave a comment below to share your experience or your own tactics to set boundaries at work.