Creating Workplace Boundaries

Nicole Williams
Posted: 12/17/2008

Do you recognize this person? Within minutes of meeting your new coworker, you know her boyfriend just dumped her, her mom is premenopausal and she hasn’t slept in days thanks to a killer migraine. If this woman is anything like the people I’ve known, it won’t be long before she’s calling you "sweetie" and embracing you in a big, fat hug.

Whatever you do, don’t become that person. If there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s this: Your ability to create workplace boundaries is hands-down one of the most memorable, effective ways to differentiate and express yourself at work. Be aware of where your personal boundaries stop and your professional workplace boundaries begin.

Here are just a few of the confusing and challenging issues with workplace boundaries that I most frequently encounter with my coworkers. Do any of these quotes sound familiar?

"I didn’t mean to make out with my boss at the office party."

You can think about your workplace boundaries until your head throbs, but it’s pointless to live in fear of stepping over the line. Why? You’ll truly understand your workplace boundaries when you cross them. You don’t even have to spend time thinking about it. Your body will send immediate signals when you’ve crossed the line, so it’s up to you to protect yourself.

Even if you do step over your workplace boundaries, you’re free to come back. The experience will actually help you draw better limits next time. And don’t think a "line cross" ever defines you. So you made out with your boss. You’re not going to do it again, and you’re definitely not doomed to a life of professional prostitution. In the words of Marianne Williamson, "The problem is not that you attract unavailable people, the problem is that you give them your number."

"I’m not going to tell him to back off. I want him to like me."

The "him" in this scenario is a young woman’s boss, and, in one form or another, I hear this sentiment way too often. Please repeat after me: Work is not a popularity contest, and there is an immense difference between being liked and being respected. People respect others who respect themselves enough to establish personal and professional workplace boundaries—people who have opinions, people who demand what they’re worth, people who say no.

"I swear she picks on me."

Bullies can sniff out fear a mile away. They sense your vulnerability and get poised to attack; and they’re relying on the fact that you won’t call them on their actions. Just like in the schoolyard, bullying is rooted in insecurity—theirs, not yours. I can almost promise that if you set your workplace boundaries by calling your bully’s bluff and expressly defining your unwillingness to take his bullshit, he will back off and find a new victim.

"I’m so stupid, I can’t believe I told her I forgot the deadline."

While it’s crucial to define what people can say and do to you, don’t forget about what you’re revealing to others. Monitor your conversations. What do you tell people about yourself? Establish healthy workplace boundaries against your own negativity. People will believe what you tell them, so refrain from saying, "I’m so lazy" or "I’m so stupid." Instead tell them you are smart and responsible. If you tell people you’re tired and lack focus they’ll believe it, and even worse, so will you.

"I thought we really made a great connection, but she didn’t say hi on the way to her office."

You will make amazing friendships in the workplace—maybe even with your boss—but please remember, unlike in mutual, healthy friendships, there is a definitive power imbalance in an office friendship. It’s your boss who's writing your performance review, signing your paychecks and assigning your projects—not your friend. If you do find yourself with a budding office friendship at work, take the time to acknowledge and define the boundaries between your personal and professional relationships.

Nicole Williams
Posted: 12/17/2008

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