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Career Development Tips

How to Establish Boundaries at Work

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated June 29, 2021

Guide Overview

Strategies for setting boundaries in the workplace

Guide Overview

Understanding the importance of setting boundaries at work

Setting boundaries with coworkers is one of the most important things you must do. Boundaries help define what you can or cannot expect from coworkers and superiors.

When you don't set boundaries at work, other employees won't know what is acceptable to you, and this can lead to conflict. Workers can find it hard to establish boundaries for fear of being considered arrogant or guilty of insubordination. Here, we outline steps to show you how to establish boundaries in the workplace for cordial office relationships.

Strategies for setting boundaries in the workplace

Here are strategies to help you establish boundaries in your workplace:

Evaluate your personal values

Before you can set boundaries, an evaluation of your personal values is crucial. Finding out what matters to you makes building up a system that favors your individual needs and desires easier. Say you value time spent with family; in that scenario, bringing work home will be undesirable. Working on projects during off-hours will limit family time, so you want to set boundaries around that. You could even tell your manager directly that working overtime or showing up every time a problem occurs is affecting your work-life balance. You must know yourself to set personal boundaries. Establish what you will take as part of the job, keeping in mind your values, needs, and desires.

Know what must change

After evaluating your personal values, you must decide on changes that must happen. This is the second step you must take when learning how to set boundaries at work. For instance, you realized you value growth and professional advancement, but your current work situation doesn’t support that. Maybe your manager keeps hitting you up during off-hours that you dedicate to learning new things. Also, it could be that you keep getting saddled with low-level tasks, which someone else can handle, instead of high-priority projects. Such a situation can limit your growth and advancement since you won’t get to prove your worth. When faced with such scenarios, you need to create boundaries after deciding on important changes to the status quo. We will explain using the two aforementioned scenarios:

Scenario #1: Manager forces you to work overtime and hinders your learning progress In this scenario, what needs to change is your work hours. You need to set boundaries with your boss and make her understand that off-work hours are for personal activities, not for more work. This way, you have set a boundary around how much time to allocate to work.

Scenario #2: Your professional growth is slow because you miss out on big projects What needs to change in this situation is how you get assigned tasks. You want to tell your manager to delegate low-level tasks to junior employees. Going through these steps helps you discover areas where setting boundaries may be useful. Note that these are just examples; you may have other problem areas that’ll benefit from boundary-making.

Always communicate boundaries

Here’s a common problem for workers: they set boundaries, only for their colleagues to cross them repeatedly. At first glance, it may look like the coworkers are acting insensitively, which is quite possible. However, the situation is a little more nuanced than that. Rather than asking why the coworkers disrespect boundaries, ask if they are even aware of any boundaries. Many individuals fail to communicate their boundaries and expect others to respect them. If you’re part of this group, then things aren’t changing soon. People can only decide to respect a boundary if they know it exists. You must lay out boundaries clearly before others can respect them. Keeping quiet about your boundaries only invites more disrespect and unfair behavior from others. With time, you’ll become more aggressive and resentful towards co-workers, superiors, and even clients. Plus, the constant crossing of boundaries may leave you overworked, depressed, and unhappy. Communicate your boundaries to everyone. You shouldn’t be arrogant about it; adopt a friendly but firm tone in discussing work limits with individuals.

Get defined structures in place

Creating a well-defined structure makes it easy to prevent others from disregarding your boundaries at work. A structure guides your work, especially interactions with others in the office. For example, you could have a work structure where certain hours are off-limits to everyone else. Once you have this structure in place and communicate it, people will be forced to adapt. In this scenario, the structure has helped you create a boundary around your time. A structure can also help set up boundaries around the work you’re willing to take. If you manage a team, create a system to control responsibility for certain tasks. That way, people won’t flout your boundaries by saddling you with another person’s tasks.

Don’t be afraid to delegate

Setting workplace boundaries involves distinguishing between duties related to your job description and those outside your immediate responsibilities. Failing to know what you should and shouldn’t do puts you at risk of burnout due to work overload. If a task is not part of your job duties, feel free to refuse or delegate it to another employee. You can delegate tasks even as a junior employee. Here’s a checklist to guide your decision to delegate a task:

  • Is this task within the provisions of my job description?
  • Will completing this task affect the performance of my main job role(s)?
  • Is there a member of my team who will be willing to take this job or who has the requisite skills to execute the task?
  • Can I delegate this task to a coworker with a lesser workload so it doesn’t affect my performance?

Be firm in saying no

Delegating a task is impossible in some situations, which leaves you an option: refuse the task. However, many employees dread saying no to tasks for fear of consequences, like job loss, demotion, and so on. But saying yes to everything, while it keeps people happy, will wear you out. Suddenly, you’re taking on a project that could be better handled by someone else, while your boss remains blissfully ignorant of your challenges. You don’t have to yell, “No, I am not taking that!” in your manager’s face. That will appear offensive and could lead to claims of insubordination. Instead, be clear in expressing your reasons for declining the task. You can even appeal to your superior’s sense of sympathy so they understand that the refusal is important to your health and performance.

Prepare responses to a boundary violation

If there’s anything certain about boundaries, it’s that they’ll always be violated. Even after communicating your boundaries, a colleague may decide to cross them. Often, individuals don’t expect people to cross their boundaries; hence, they cannot respond effectively when it happens. It is vital to visualize situations where a personal boundary is crossed so you can plan your reaction. Doing this can ensure you don’t react emotionally to those who ignore your limits, because reacting with the wrong emotions can cause problems. For instance, lashing out at a superior for crossing your boundary can cost you the job.

Avoid postponing discussions about boundary violations

The best time to let a colleague or superior know they crossed a boundary is immediately after it happens. Don’t be that person who sulks for a while and only brings up the violation much later. Telling people immediately about a boundary they crossed is important for many reasons. First, it spares you emotional turmoil that will surely result from bottled-up emotions. Second, it lends more power to your boundary. If you reinforce the boundary at the moment, your coworker will realize the seriousness of his actions. When you bring up the violation weeks or months later, it will have lost power, and your coworker may not even recall the incident.

Take advantage of technology

You may be unaware, but technology can be helpful when trying to establish boundaries in the workplace. For example, many workplace collaboration tools allow you to alert others to your off-work hours. Also, you can use tools like Google Calendar to structure your time. Doing this can help you set mental boundaries around your time. For instance, you can schedule a block of time for non-work activities on your calendar. If your boss comes with work during that period, your calendar will remind you to state your boundaries. Without a tool for blocking time for activities, it’s easy to keep working outside of work hours. Establishing boundaries at work is an important factor for letting people know about the type of behavior you will accept and how you want them to treat you. Use this guide to discover the different ways to create boundaries at work to safeguard your role and enjoy improved work-life balance.

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