Managing Your Boundaries
Ensuring That Others Respect Your Needs
Good fences make good neighbors. – Old proverb
Fences allow you to protect what's valuable to you. They also allow you to control who and what enters your space.
In the workplace, setting boundaries helps establish a productive work environment. You – and the people you work with – have different values, needs, and beliefs about what's right. These differences can lead to conflict, resentment, anger, anxiety, and stress.
Does your co-worker like last-minute deadlines and working under pressure, but you like to plan ahead and have everything finished early? You can do things your co-worker's way (and end up stressed) – or you can recognize what you need to be effective, and then ask for it. Do you have a colleague who yells and screams when she's under stress? Does this behavior upset you? Then you owe it to yourself to say something to her, so that she understands the negative impact she's having on other people.
This is called managing your boundaries. It's an assertive and responsible way to make sure others respect your needs, while you respect theirs.
By taking the time to understand and map your boundaries, you will.
- Be able to say no to requests that conflict with your needs.
- Better understand how to deal with conflict, directly and assertively.
- Increase your personal sense of empowerment.
Boundary management is essentially a three-step process:
- Becoming aware of your needs.
- Setting your boundaries.
- Monitoring your boundaries.
Step One: Become Aware of Your Needs
- Do you sometimes doubt that you have a right to ensure that your needs are met?
- Do you avoid speaking up for yourself on a regular basis, and do you let things go, and not react to bad situations?
- Do you tend to avoid conflict? Do you let others have their way or make decisions for you?
- Do you agree to do things that you really don't want to do – and later regret it?
These are all signs that you don't actively try to have your needs met – and that you haven't established your boundaries.
Some of us seem to have the persistent and questionable belief that to get along with others, we need to give much more than we take. We may think that asking for what we want is selfish, that it's not good team behavior. So we may say things like "Whatever you choose will be great!" and we may agree to do things we don't want to do, and shouldn't have to do.
This is a great strategy for avoiding conflict and confrontation with others. Unfortunately, it can create a destructive conflict inside of you. You can build up anger and tension – because you give away your power and you're not getting what you need. Eventually, this tension and anger can become too great, and you won't be able to tolerate it anymore.
It's far better to become aware of what you need, and then to develop strategies to ensure that your needs are met appropriately.
Whether or not you acknowledge your needs, they're often met anyway – though not necessarily in a good way. For example, if you need structure and you're not getting it, you might create charts and graphs and schedules for everything – but your teammates may hate this. If you need to be liked, you might avoid conflict at all costs – but this could allow people to make poor decisions. It's not constructive to try to satisfy your needs in this way – and it may lead to much greater problems in the long run.
The most obvious way to become aware of your needs is to think of times when you felt angry, tense, or resentful – or times when you were embarrassed by your reaction to something. These can be signs that your needs were not met.
Remember when you experienced these feelings and had these reactions, and ask yourself these questions:
- What need or value was not honored by others?
- What did you really want?
Then complete the following phrases:
- I have a right to ask for ________, because I need ________.
- It's OK to protect my time by________, because I need ________.
- I will not allow others to________, because I need ________.
Step Two: Set Your Boundaries
When you understand what you need to be happy, that's only the first part of the process. You must also let others know what you need. Your colleagues, peers, and friends can't always figure this out on their own. You have to tell them (and remind them) of your needs and your boundaries.
Follow these guidelines:
- Be assertive – Communicate assertively. Tell people what you need, and work with them to reach solutions that can satisfy everyone. Without assertiveness, you risk allowing other people's needs to come first.
- Learn to say no, when appropriate – If you say yes to everything, you risk not having enough time to do anything properly. You also risk not working on the things that are truly important. Use Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle to determine your priorities and understand your roles and responsibilities. You can learn some practical strategies from our Coaching Clinic Why Can I Never Say NO?
- Use effective time management – A big part of setting boundaries is making time for your work and time for personal interests. When you put all your energy into only one thing, you risk burning out and not enjoying life. With good time management, you can get things done more efficiently. Prioritize, delegate, and schedule to make sure that you use your time at work wisely. This can help you work less and play more!
- Focus on your objectives – Getting what you want takes commitment. Setting boundaries isn't always easy, so maintain a strong focus on your overall objectives. Good goal-setting strategies will help you achieve this.
Step Three: Monitor Your Boundaries
When you start to set boundaries, it will help you enjoy an immediate sense of empowerment and control. It's a great feeling – knowing that you can ask for what you need, and then get it.
It's also important that boundaries are not completely fixed or unchangeable: sometimes life needs a certain amount of flexibility. Rigid, inflexible boundaries may get in the way of your needs – because your needs can change, depending on the situation.
If you're very disciplined with your time, this likely improves your productivity. But if a project needs you to work well with a colleague, you may not want to end your meeting with him at the scheduled time if you need to build that relationship.
Make sure the boundaries you set are appropriate, and be willing to make changes, depending on the situation.
Also, keep in mind that while you may set up an imaginary fence around you, this doesn't mean that you don't have any responsibility for what happens outside your boundaries. You can say no when you're asked to take on more work, but you can still help find someone else to do that work. You can delegate a task to someone, but you're still responsible for the outcome.
Remember, boundaries are a way to help you work more effectively with others. They're not meant to keep you completely separate and apart from others.
It's important to define your boundaries, maintain those boundaries, and manage the consequences. If you don't acknowledge and defend your boundaries, you risk feeling angry and resentful when others take advantage of you or abuse you. If you don't respect your boundaries, how can you expect others to do so?
When you have a clear set of boundaries that are reasonable and appropriate to the situation, you empower yourself to get what you need to be satisfied. If you're satisfied, you'll be happier and more productive. And since that's the true goal of career management, make boundary management a priority today.