Setting Healthy Workplace Boundaries

Home / Campus / ( Published on 2014-08-14 )

When we talk about interpersonal or workplace boundaries, it can sometimes be a difficult concept to grasp because it isn’t something we can see. But just because we can’t see a boundary, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or it isn’t important.  Boundaries are present whenever a person or department interfaces with another person or department. The definition of a boundary is the ability to know where you end and where another person begins. When we talk about needing space, setting limits, determining acceptable behavior, or creating a sense of autonomy, we are really talking about boundaries. It is a general misconception that having good boundaries will distance you from others. However, the truth is that when you know where you end and others begin, you can then closely engage with others because you won’t feel overwhelmed or unprotected. Moreover, having a sense of autonomy prevents the need to distance our self from others with a barrier. 

Professional boundaries are important because they define the limits and responsibilities of the people with whom you interact in the workplace. When workplace boundaries are clearly defined, the organization works more efficiently because redundant work assignments are eliminated and task performance is accountable. When everyone in an organization is made aware of who is responsible for what, healthier workplace environments are created. It then becomes very difficult for someone to blame others for their failed or inadequate performance, and good job performance can clearly be identified.   

Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries

An individual’s professional boundaries can be defined in terms of a job description, as long as it clearly outlines basic responsibilities and reporting relationships. However, many times job descriptions define work responsibilities in terms that are too broad and general. In such cases, specific clarification of an individual’s duties and responsibilities will be required before an effective and efficient workplace can be created.

Your professional boundaries become more clearly defined when you can answer all of these questions:

  • Who gives you your assignments?
  • To whom do you report?
  • Who gives you feedback?
  • Who sets your work priorities?
  • How are your company and client personal information kept secure?
  • Do you know how to treat all staff members fairly without positive or negative feelings influencing your decisions?

When professional boundaries and priorities have been clearly defined, it’s very likely that a group can function effectively, even in the absence of its leader. If everyone on your team understands what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, then team members will feel safe in their roles.  A smooth functioning organization is a tangible demonstration of their team leader’s commitment to their success, which creates trust in leadership. It is the responsibility of every team leader to set the tone of the group by clearly defining acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior. An effective leader understands that failing to define boundaries, having no boundaries, or having inappropriately rigid boundaries can have an unfavorable impact on their organization and employees. In some cases boundaries need to be firm. For example, lying, stealing, or verbally or physically abusing others is never allowed. It may sound as if the responsibility to create a smooth functioning organization falls only upon the team leaders; however every team member has a role to play as well. It is the responsibility of every individual team member to be willing to speak up to a colleague or supervisor and clearly define their problem and help find a resolution that works for everyone.

Another important area that should be negotiated is interpersonal boundaries, because professional and interpersonal boundaries substantially impact workplace productivity and the quality of social environment. Interpersonal boundary parameters include:

  • The tone people use with each other.
  • The attitude and approach co-workers use with each other.
  • The ability to focus on work objectives even when cooperating with people you don’t like or with whom you are having a personal conflict.
  • The ability to effectively set limits with others who have poor boundaries.
  • Clearly defining the consequences when a boundary is violated and then sticking to it.

Boundaries will have no meaning if your actions don’t back up your words!

Where to Start

Ideally, workplace boundaries are carefully negotiated in an open discussion about responsibilities, goals, and priorities prior to starting a new job or beginning a project. Even if this type of understanding wasn’t reached beforehand, it’s never too late to improve your interactions with your team members. Here are three core skill areas to help you get started:

1. Know your limits: what you can do well within the allotted timeframe.
Don’t exaggerate your ability by overselling it. Give accurate estimates. Delivering a good product on time will improve your credibility, while missing deadlines or delivering a substandard product will only hurt your reputation.

2. Tactfully and openly communicate about goals and limitations.
Don’t try to undersell or misrepresent your ability. Underselling artificially prevents you from being able to demonstrate your professional skills, which might affect your career advancement. When discussing your limitations, focus on what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. Keep your focus on your positive intentions; ask for help when it’s needed to ensure good quality work; actively engage in problem solving, and don’t complain about the problem. Ensure that others are receiving the message you intended by asking for feedback when it’s not forthcoming.

3. Be available to discuss differences and reach agreements.
Reflect back your understanding of the other person’s needs, interests, and concerns. Attempt to negotiate win-win solutions.

Establishing boundaries and priorities go hand in hand because they both help manage interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Together they go a long way toward establishing productive work environments based on trust. Competent and credible leaders understand these principles and consistently model them for their staff.

The Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at UCSF provide confidential assessment, counseling, and referral services that support the well being of both the individual and the organization. For more information or to make an appointment contact us at 415/476-8279 or visit the FSAP website.


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