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 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. 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 obstacle to work-life balance.
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, 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.
Brent Roy, PCC, CPLC, 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!