Why Professional Boundaries Are The Key To Happiness At Work
by Brent Roy
When we think about managing interactions in the workplace, the term “professional boundaries” often surfaces. Although it conveys clarity, many people differ on its meaning. Once you have a clear understanding of what boundaries are to you, you’re in a much better place. It will allow you to erect them, protect them and insist others respect them.
What are Boundaries?
A boundary, whether real or imagined, is a dividing line. It marks the limits or edges of something and separates it from other things or places. It isn’t too difficult to visualize what clear boundaries could look like in your professional and personal life.
Think of a piece of land, for example. Before you purchase it, a surveyor will show you drawings to clearly delineate the boundaries of the property.
You may purchase the property and erect a fence that indicates where the adjacent property ends and where yours begins.
You protect your ground by keeping the fence well maintained. This will make it more likely others will respect your boundaries.
John F. Kennedy believed professional boundaries to be the key to happiness between the United States and his Canadian neighbours to the north.
In a 1957 speech in Fredericton, New Brunswick Canada, he quoted Robert Frost. “Good fences make good neighbors. Canada and the United States have carefully maintained the good fences that help make them good neighbors.”
What are Professional Boundaries?
In its truest sense, professional boundaries define the limits between your professional duties and your personal life in your off-hours.
While saying work-life balance is important, Americans are particularly unsuccessful at finding it. Not as terrible as Columbia, Mexico, Turkey, Korea and Japan, the United States ranked 12th worst. In the U.S., some 11 percent of employees work 50 hours or more per week. This is according to a recent Better Life Index.
Respecting your personal and professional boundaries means you end your workday when the workday officially ends. You don’t check your email at home or call the office on your day off. It means you take your vacation. You also have a keen awareness that working late does not make you a hero.
What’s the Cost of Working Long Hours?
Women with male partners that work 50 or more hours a week were generally less satisfied with their relationship than those whose partners worked less. Long hours can also be a literal killer.
According to a Lancet study, people who worked 55 hours or more per week have a 1.3 times higher risk of stroke compared to those who work the standard 40 hour week.
Bad bosses, incompetent work colleagues, long commutes and inflexible work hours are the most cited obstacles to good professional boundaries. If your desire is to find the key to happiness at work, you need to develop a plan to overcome the work-life balance obstacle.
Personal boundaries are important, but it’s equally as important that you remember to establish interpersonal boundaries at work as well.
Setting Interpersonal Boundaries
Interpersonal boundaries involve your relationships with your co-workers. They also include your manager(s) and anyone else you are intimately involved with in your day-to-day working life. Establishing interpersonal boundaries can boost your team’s productivity and decrease conflict in the workplace.
Understanding and clearly communicating your emotional, mental, and physical limits can lead to a much more satisfying and fulfilling work environment.
The better you pay attention to what you can accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable, the closer you are to understanding the importance of professional boundaries in your everyday life.
Boundaries can include tone of voice, attitude, and setting behavioural norms around discussion topics that are (or are not) acceptable in the workplace.
It’s true that many people don’t learn about interpersonal boundaries until they are violated. For some, this discomfort is an opportunity to explore better workplace communication. When done right, communication can bring teams closer together.
Establishing Professional Boundaries Doesn’t Have to Be Contentious
Setting professional boundaries shows your co-workers and managers your desire to respect their needs as well as your own. Even though it may seem awkward to do, you can express your boundaries without being a jerk or forcing your will on others.
One ideal way to do this is by working with a facilitator or mediator. Working together as a team gives everyone the opportunity to discuss expectations about their preferences and what is off-limits.
If that isn’t an option in your workplace, there are nice but firm ways to convey your displeasure with a boundary “dispute.”
How To Establish Professional Boundaries
For example, a response to an off-limit remark could be, “I find that topic offensive and I do not find it appropriate to discuss at work. I ask you not to speak that way in front of me again.”
When someone speaks to you with a negative attitude or snippy retort you can simply say, “The tone of voice you’re using with me makes me feel demeaned. Please don’t use that tone with me again.”
If someone disagrees with you in an argumentative way, you can defuse it by summarizing their argument. Try something like, “What I heard you say is…” and then confirm it.
For example, “What I heard you say is, the contracts have to be signed before the end of the week. Is that correct?” This shows you care enough about the other person to listen. When the other person confirms this, try adding, “What’s your biggest concern?”
Both of these tactics demonstrate respect for the other person and that their point of view is worth hearing. It also opens the opportunity for more, and less heated, discussion, bringing clarity to the situation.
Being clear on what is and isn’t acceptable at work and communicating it nicely builds trust and creates a healthy culture. It allows you to protect your boundaries and it gains cooperation from others around you to respect them.
Determining where the professional boundaries between work and personal time begin and end will keep you healthy and thriving on the home front and hand you the keys to happiness at work.
I asked some experts how they have been successful at managing professional boundaries. Here’s what they had to say.
Quotes from Experts:
What is an example of a professional boundary you have set? How did you set it and how has it helped you?
“I have always had an open-door policy where employees can have a safe space for whatever kind of support they need; whether that’s advice, a place to share concerns, or just someone to listen confidentiality.
When I had multiple levels ultimately reporting into my position, I had to create boundaries for some of these discussion.
This would ensure I could continue having this policy without undermining my direct reports when their direct reports came to me for support, or even just a conversation.
Transparency is Key
The key is transparency. Being transparent with all parties regarding what conversations I would have and those I would not, and why, allowed me to continue to support all staff without affecting the autonomy and confidence of any managers within the team.
It also contributed to our mutual respect as they saw and felt, in practice, my respect for them as capable, caring professionals, and they in turn, respected my approach to creating an environment where everyone could feel valued and heard.”
Rae Burke is Director of Procurement and Logistics – Advisory Services with Insight Health Tech Planning. You can follow Rae on LinkedIn.
“In my work as a project manager, I was constantly setting boundaries; specifically around the scope of a project. Once the scope baseline was set, it could only be changed with an “approved change request”. So when I was approached by a project stakeholder wanting to make a mid-project adjustment to the scope, I stood firm on my boundary and replied, “No.”
As you can probably imagine, that was not an acceptable response and ruffled a lot of feathers. So I needed to figure out how to stick to my boundaries without coming across as negative or not being a team player. So, I changed my response, from “No”, to, “It Depends”. When asked if I could make a mid-project scope adjustment, I replied “It depends, let me research it.”
Ask for Impact First
Then I went to my team and asked what the impact would be on the project if we made the proposed scope adjustment. We explored how it impacted the cost, schedule, and risk of the project. Once we identified the impact, I returned to the stakeholder who made the request. I said, “We looked at how this change you requested impacts the project schedule, budget, and risk. This is what we found. The budget will increase by $10,000, the schedule will be extended by 4 weeks, and the risk increases, but only modestly.
Ask Whether it Changes Scope
Then I would ask the all-important question: “Given that impact, do you still want to adjust the scope? They could answer in one of two ways: (1) YES, in which case you have just received an approved change request, the only thing your boundary allows to change scope mid-project. Or … (2) NO, in which case you don’t make the scope adjustment and you managed your boundary without having to say “No” yourself!
Over years of managing projects, I managed project boundaries so much more effectively, and maintained stronger functional and cross-functional team relationships with this approach than I was ever able to by saying “No”.”
Ron Cook is a Global Leadership Development Trainer, Coach and Mentor. You can follow Ron on LinkedIn.
“When I think of setting professional boundaries, I’m reminded of the quote “your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part”.
You Must Plan and Manage Your Work
Over the years there has been a lot of pressure to get things done in the 11th hour or expect the unobtainable in a short amount of time. Work needs to be planned and managed.
What helps me is having discussions around resources and time required to complete tasks. I try to provide a realistic lens and inform people that a specific amount of time is required if they want the task done well.
I set realistic timelines and schedules for the project work I lead and realistically report hours worked and forecast future work and say no to extra work if I have enough on my plate.
Time for “Me”
I ensure “me” time by blocking out an hour every day during the lunch hour so that I have control over my “health break” and provide myself with the time I need to recharge. It is very rare that I negotiate this time.
Because I am also in school, I value the time I have away from my professional life and choose to work within the constraints of my working hours to complete tasks. This also requires planning and managing my workload on my part.“
Chrystal Allen is a Process Improvement Facilitator/Project Manager. You can follow Chrystal on LinkedIn.
Brent Roy, PCC, CPLC, CMC, a certified executive, career and personal development coach, works with men and women who want to increase their confidence and boost their executive presence to prepare them for promotion or a new career. For more ways I can help, please reach out!