How to Set Better Boundaries at Work

Good boundaries can do wonders for your career. But, there’s a lot more to the practice than just knowing how to say no to your boss. (Although, that’s important and certainly a part of the equation.) First of all, keep in mind that you need clear and healthy boundaries with teammates, work friends and clients, not just with your manager. And, setting these boundaries, unfortunately, is often easier said than done.

The tone and tenor of your professional relationships impact your career in a big way. Establishing proper limits helps you to be at your best. It’s essential to have good boundaries in order for these relationships to thrive. Plus, it will help you to feel confident and calm. And, you’ll probably enjoy the workday more, too.

So, let’s take a closer look at how to establish better boundaries at work:

What does it mean to “set boundaries” at work?

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The first step toward having better boundaries is knowing that you need them. So, let’s define the term. The word boundaries, used in this context, can be described as the limits we set with other people. They indicate to others what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable to us.

Healthy boundaries are derived from a good sense of self-worth. When you value yourself in a way that doesn’t depend on other people, or the way they feel about you, you are more equipped to set boundaries. But, knowing where the lines are and asserting them are two different things. Communicating your boundaries to others takes practice.

Of course, you have to set different kinds of boundaries with people who play a variety of roles at work. What’s right for a client might not be the best approach for a coworker, for example.

Here are five different places where you should work to set healthy, strong boundaries at work and some tips for how to draw the right lines:

1. Coworkers

unstuck at work

It’s essential to have strong boundaries with your colleagues. You probably spend more time at work with these people than with any other group. Their work reflects on your performance and vice-versa. You want to be helpful and supportive, but you also don’t want to be taken advantage of due to your generosity. It’s not always easy to draw the line.

Clear and honest communication is essential in order to keep these relationships functioning at an optimal level. If you don’t want to check email after hours or on weekends, let your coworkers know. Then, be sure to stick to the limit you’ve set. Letting your teammates know what they can and cannot expect from you is key when setting healthy boundaries, and so is consistency.

Also, when it comes to coworkers, it’s best to keep things professional. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t joke around and have fun at work — you definitely should. (You can have tons of fun at work and still be awesome at your job.) But, stay away from topics that could get you into trouble. Don’t gossip about the boss, for example. And, if others try to broach negative or otherwise inappropriate topics with you, simply cut them short. Change the subject or walk away if you need to. Your coworkers will get the message that you have a boundary around those types of conversations, and they’ll eventually stop trying to draw you into them.

Having strong boundaries will help you to be more productive at work, and it will allow you to enjoy your coworkers a little more, too. Remember, you don’t have to go along with everything in order to be a good team player.

2. Bosses

lead with empathy
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Managers require a special touch when it comes to setting boundaries at work. Of course, you want to stay on these folks’ good side, but you still ought to work to establish some healthy limits.

First of all, know that you don’t have to say yes to every single request your boss sends your way. But, learning how to say no to your boss does take practice. Try to keep your explanation short, simple and honest. If you’re too busy, for example, let your boss know that you don’t want to compromise the quality of your other work or your ability to meet deadlines by taking on something else. Or, you might also try to find ways to yes to part of the request without taking on the entire thing. Maybe you can help the team get started before pulling back.

Also, keep in mind that it’s perfectly all right to assert boundaries between your personal and professional life with your boss. There’s no need to talk about it, in most cases — just demonstrate your limits through your actions. You don’t have to respond to emails after hours, for example, even if they’re from someone you report to directly. You also shouldn’t neglect your health, your family, or your sanity, to burn the midnight oil. Limits are important. Be sure to listen to what your individual needs are in terms of your time away from work. Then, make a point honor those needs consistently.

It’s mature and self-protective to have boundaries. They’re a positive thing. Don’t assume that the higher-ups will look down on your for it. In fact, quite the opposite might turn out to be true. You might just find that your professional reputation actually improves as a result of the changes you’ve made.

3. Work friends

fun at work

There are a lot of benefits to having friends at work. They help you enjoy your job more, which is great for your productivity. Plus, they know a side of you that those in your personal life do not. And that can help you to form real connections and ties to one another. Work friends can sometimes sneak in under the boundaries you set with other coworkers because of these genuine bonds. But, you should set limits with them, too.

As much as you might share more personal information with friends you’ve made at work, it’s still important to maintain your professionalism. For example, it’s always a good idea, no matter what you do for a living, to have some boundaries around negativity and work gossip. Remember that your friends are supposed to make you feel better, not worse.

If certain topics of conversation are bringing you down, take note and work to eliminate them. No good will come from getting into a habit of complaining to each other about work all the time, for example. You can tell your friends directly that you don’t want to talk about things like that. Then, be sure not to initiate these kinds of negative conversations yourself.

Establishing good boundaries with friends is all about managing what you give your attention and where you focus your time. Give attention to people, and conversations, that bring you toward positivity and professional growth. And, let the negative talk, and the negative people, fall away.

Also, remember that while it’s good to have friends at work (60 percent of people say that their work friends helped them later in their career, according to a new study from LinkedIn) you still have to get your job done to the best of your ability. Work friends should enhance your experience on the job, not distract you from it. So, just be careful not to get too carried away.

4. Clients

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It can be challenging to set boundaries with clients, but it’s just as important as it is with every other group. Of course you rely upon your clients’ business, and therefore their happiness and satisfaction, for your own professional success. But, that doesn’t mean you have to twist yourself into a pretzel to make these relationship everything your clients demand.

Once again, clear communication is key if you really want to set some healthy boundaries here. If you don’t take calls in the evening, for example, let your clients know upfront. “I take calls during regular business hours” is a perfectly reasonable statement to make in a work context. You might also explain that you always return calls and emails within 24 hours. In this way, you’re letting your clients know that you are very accessible, but you’re also setting some limits that will help you to take care of yourself, and ultimately them as well. (Remind yourself that they most likely set boundaries with their own clients, too.)

Also, no one has a right to talk to you in a way that’s abusive or offensive, clients included. Sometimes, people feel empowered by their role and cross these lines. If this happens with one of your clients, tell your manager. And, be sure to have a coworker or a boss with you for any and all meetings with that individual in the future. You shouldn’t have to put up with those kinds of incidents or behaviors. You have to set limits.

5. Yourself

unplug from work
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In addition to setting boundaries with others, it’s also important to have them for yourself. No matter who you’re dealing with, the practice is all about knowing your limits and consistently respecting them. You draw lines with others and don’t allow them to cross into territory that doesn’t serve you. So, why would you waiver in these commitments to yourself?

So, stick with it when you make a promise to yourself about work. If you say you’re going to leave the office at 6 o’clock, make it happen. If you decide not to check your email over the weekend, keep your promise to yourself. Taking time to unplug is important for your professional success. In fact, it’s one of the healthy habits leaders often embrace. So, setting some boundaries and sticking to them, even with yourself, is definitely in your best interest.

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