Setting Boundaries at Work

Boundaries for Leaders

While I (Dr. Cloud) was consulting with one of the biggest companies in North America, an employee told me, "We would be so much better off if my boss would set better boundaries on what goes on with individuals on our team. He plays the 'nice guy' role too much, and as a result, the team suffers."

Surprisingly, a lack of confrontation goes in the other direction as well. One vice president told me something I hear often as a consultant: "I wish my people would come clean with me. I wish they would tell me what they really think. I wish they would be more open and direct. But they are scared to do that."

If you are like most people, you spend a lot of your life at work. Work is a place with many possibilities for stress, conflict, risk, and loss. It is a place where you put in the best of who you are. You are serving, and at times sacrificing, trying to please, and also establishing friendships on the teams with whom you work. So it naturally follows that you can experience some emotionally trying times there.

In addition, you have a job to do. Sometimes, in the course of doing your job, you have to establish boundaries with other people who are not doing their jobs well. They may be your colleagues or people you manage and supervise or your supervisors and bosses. Much rides on your ability to communicate well. It may make a difference not only in how you feel on the job, but also whether your company or department performs well.

Understanding Task and Relationship

When you look at leadership research, management theory, and all the things that have ever been studied about how good work environments operate, two areas always emerge: task and relationship. Work has to do with getting a job done (the task) and getting along well with the people who are doing the task (the relationship). We work hard at tasks, and we do that with other people. It's important that the two work together.

Both of these areas depend on establishing good communication and confrontation skills. To get a job done, we have to solve problems and "face" things. To get along well, we have to work out relational issues with each other through facing things as well. So the entire arena of work requires good confrontation skills to work well. Confront well, and you will work better also. The best teams and the best work cultures are those that confront well.

Tips for Confronting and Setting Boundaries at Work

People are afraid to confront those over them as well as those under them. Often there are accountability structures established at work, and policies in place streamline interactions along the chain of command. The problem is more often that people don't confront rather than that they can't. That is why I regard a lack of confrontation as more of a personal issue than a "work" or "authority" issue. What can you do? Here are some helpful tips for confronting people at work.

Discover the policies already in place. Find out what formal communication policies guide how things are dealt with. Some things, such as sexual harassment, fall outside of the realm of talking to your co-worker; they require a formal procedure. Your human resources department or your supervisor will probably be able to help you there.

Ask your boss. If there is no formal communication structure in place, the good old-fashioned way of finding this out is to ask. Ask your boss or supervisor how she would like you to handle talking to her about issues the two of you encounter. For example:

"Lynn, I want to have the best working relationship we can, and I want to do the best job possible for you. How do you want us to talk about things when an issue arises between us? Do I have the freedom to be really direct and clear about how we are doing together? Do I have to worry that I will be in trouble? How often would you like for us to 'check in' with each other to clean up lingering issues? Or do you have a preference for less structured meeting times and dealing with issues as they come up?"

Those are probably more questions than you want to ask, but you get the idea. Many times, just talking to a boss or supervisor about how the two of you want to work with each other is very helpful.

Be direct. Go to your co-worker and talk directly about how the two of you should resolve conflict or solve problems. Putting it into a "solving problems" mode is probably less threatening. Have a talk over lunch or at a coffee break about how to do that, before there is an issue, if possible. Coming up with the ground rules and expectations beforehand is key. Covenant with each other to keep short accounts and to help each other by giving feedback.

Communicate Your Boundaries with Co-workers. Years ago, I walked into the office, and one of our employees (lets call her Susie) was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she just shook her head no, as if to say she couldn't talk about it. I pressed, though, as it was clear she was in a lot of distress.

"I just don't know what to do," she said. "Bill keeps asking me to do favors, and I can't get my work and his done, too. I don't know if I can work here anymore."

"What is he doing?"

"He dashes out the door and asks me if I could 'just drop something by at the printer' for him, as he has an important meeting to go to."

"Have you told him you can't?" I asked.

"I say I don't have time, but he just says it won't take long and it would really help him, so I do it. Saying no hasn't helped."

"Well, saying it might not, but doing it would. I know Bill, and I would suggest a twofold approach. First, why don't you tell him what this feels like to you? Tell him that you want to help, but you have too much of your own work to do and you can't help him out anymore. Then tell him that you think he probably doesn't know how this is affecting you. Tell him that you are so troubled by the trap you feel you are in that you are thinking of quitting. Tell him how hard it is to be under that pressure and that it is affecting your whole outlook on working here."

She did confront him, and the outcome was great. While poor at seeing how his favors were too much to ask, he was good at responding to how others feel. He heard her and was saddened that he had made her work life so difficult for her.

Often, if you can be clear about a problem's effect on you, and if you can help the other person see that this is the reason you are talking about it, you can resolve it. When you express how you are being hurt by something, as opposed to how someone else is "wrong," many co-worker issues go away. Teamwork begins with understanding how we can help make one another's load lighter.

People feel the need to address many different topics. Only you know what your issues are, but here are some common "talks" you might need to have at work:

  • "I feel like I am pulling more than my share of the weight. . . ."
  • "You interrupt me a lot. . . ."
  • "Please turn down your radio. . . ."
  • "I can't find you when I need you. . . ."
  • "I need for you to get back to me sooner. . . ."
  • "I have to wait long periods of time for you to get things to me we have agreed on. . . ."

Certainly there are many more issues, but what they all have in common is that another person is working in a way that affects you and your work. Since you are not the boss, instead of evaluating someone's performance, share how you want things to work better between you and the other person so you can work more effectively. If you can face your co-worker and use the principles focusing on how it affects you and the task, you will have a greater chance at resolution.


If setting boundaries at work has you stressed out, find solutions in Boundaries for Leaders.

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