Claiming Your Space: Setting Work Boundaries

Katharina Stickling

A client of ours approached us with an interesting problem recently, one that later turned out was a theme occurring throughout the organisation. How do you say ‘no’ without negatively impacting the relationship or morale of staff, or without overstepping the line with management?

How do you tell members of other teams who are trying to interfere or input into your field of responsibilities that you appreciate their thoughts, but, “No, thank you.”? Assuming you are achieving what is expected of you in your job description, but are asked to do more; when are you entitled to say “I’m at capacity”?

Setting boundaries means defining what is ‘ok’ and what is ‘not ok’, when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. It means deciding where you place your attention, which habits you want to build, and which processes you set with others. Enforcing boundaries can be difficult, as we fear conflict as a consequence, but it doesn’t have to be.

You are paid to perform a certain role and this comes with certain expectations. Where it becomes interesting is when you find yourself getting frustrated, resentful, angry or even burnt out. These emotions are a clear indication that something is out of balance. After careful evaluation of whether you have fulfilled your obligations, you might want to determine at what point your boundaries have been infringed upon. 

Awareness of self and others

When approached with something that doesn’t quite sit right, start by being curious and asking for more information. E.g. “Before I can give you an answer, I need to understand more about what you’re envisioning.” Consider the request and run it through your own set of values and objectives. Then consider the interests of the other person and try to really understand how they got to where they are. This is your chance to assess the situation, which is important in order to avoid rushing to saying no prematurely. Author Bruce Tulgan calls this a ‘bad no’, a decision driven by personal bias. 

Assertive communication

Once you have settled on a decision, the next step is to communicate openly and directly where you stand. Say what you want to say while acknowledging the need of the other person: “No, we can’t do exactly what you’re asking, but we can do something else that will help achieve the outcome you’re looking for.” If your counterpart seems dissatisfied with your answer, share your logic, the facts and values that led you to your decision, and demonstrate that you took their needs and wants into account. 

Clear expectations

While setting the boundary and communicating your stance, make sure to be clear but not harsh. Being clear means avoiding phrasing your response too nicely, apologetically or reluctantly.  Softening the message is counterproductive, as it can confuse the receiver or lead to the message being misinterpreted. Opt to educate the other instead of defending your position or attacking them. Repeat what needs to be repeated and stand your ground even if this feels new to you. 

Setting boundaries at work come in all shapes or forms, interpersonal and personal. They can look like:

  • Choosing not to participate in gossip. 
  • Saying ‘no’ when asked to do an additional task by a colleague or management that goes too far beyond your agreed work hours or area of responsibility
  • Saying ‘no’ when asked to perform a task by a colleague or management that contradicts your own moral code.
  • Taking your lunch break even though everyone else remains sitting at the desk. 
  • Speaking up when you disagree with a colleague or management, rather than going along with a decision you see flaws in that could impact individuals or the organisation.
  • Communicating your expectations with your direct reports.
  • Starting to delegate tasks to the appropriate people when you have too much on your plate and want others to step up.
  • Asking others to wait when they interrupt your flow to interact with you.  
  • Deciding how much personal information you share with the team. 
  • Expressing how you are uncomfortable with the harmful behaviour of a colleague or manager.
  • Choosing not to participate in Friday drinks to go home and rest.
  • Clocking out on time to pursue a private hobby and prioritise your personal wellbeing. 

We help leaders in businesses who have people in their team that they want to grow because the potential is there, or need to grow because without it the individual and the organisation could get a bit stuck.  

Harrowfield is a strategic learning agency. Working to a specific client brief, we draw on the disciplines of organisational and behavioural psychology to determine and execute strategic and tactical programmes for individual and team development.

Harrowfield People Development provides training and coaching support helping people set workplace boundaries with themselves and others.

Can you see a learning opportunity or a behavioural frustration? We help business leaders to bring out the potential that they see in their people by shaping habits of thinking, communication and action in the workplace. Talk to us today.

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