How to set boundaries at work — and save your sanity

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Angry boss displeased with her nerdy workerMike and Kim had worked together for many years at a large public broadcasting organization. He was a manager, and she was a senior attorney; they often collaborated but reported to different bosses.

One day, during what seemed to be a routine conversation in Kim’s office, she cursed and berated Mike about his work. Afterwards, Mike faced a tough choice: risk escalating the conflict by speaking up about Kim’s inappropriate behavior or remain silent in hopes that that the outburst would be an isolated incident.

Although this scenario may seem extreme, it’s a situation that many people encounter in the workplace, where too often people do not speak up for themselves and find that they’re treated with disrespect. Ineffective boundary-setting at work can also create problems in when:

  • A colleague makes an unreasonable request and you have difficulty saying no or setting limits.
  • Team members aren’t clear about their expectations of each other.
  • Supervisors pile on assignments without setting priorities or completion deadlines.
  • Colleagues stop by to chat too frequently, distracting you from completing assignments.
  • You work late hours at the expense of your family or friends and your own mental and physical well-being.

Employees who have difficulty setting or respecting boundaries react with behavior that undermines their effectiveness and hurts the bottom line — procrastinating, avoiding co-workers or failing to meet their goals.  They can also contribute to high staff turnover rates, since employees don’t want to work in an atmosphere where they don’t feel supported and valued.

Staffers may fail to set boundaries because they fear hurting another’s feelings, creating conflict, being treated with disapproval or suffering repercussions.

Effective boundary-setting often requires gathering the courage to stand up for oneself and insist on being treated with respect and dignity, regardless of what others want or think. Success at this can be empowering.

The best time to set boundaries is at the beginning of a work relationship, although sometimes it isn’t possible.

The following four steps offer a roadmap for setting and maintaining boundaries successfully:

Let the person know when their behavior is unacceptable or has crossed a specific boundary and tell them what you want. Initiate this conversation in a private setting and in a calm manner so the person will be more receptive to what you say.

Sometimes, employees believe that their colleague will be offended or upset by a request to change their workplace behavior. Often, they appreciate the feedback.

If a co-worker or supervisor continues to violate a boundary, spell out the consequences of their behavior. For example, if you have to work late hours at the expense of family or friends and your own health and well-being, discuss this with your supervisor. Share your concerns about the pace and whether you’ll be able to maintain the quality of your work. Be as specific as you can about how much work you are willing to do after hours, if any.

If you find yourself attempting to set boundaries repeatedly, with no consequences attached, you may find that your colleague perceives you as a nag and stops listening.  When defining the appropriate consequence for an untenable workplace situation, remember that the more specific you can be, the more likely your consequence will be taken seriously and prove effective. Be sure to decide the consequence and express it to your colleague when you are calm.

Reinforce new boundaries as needed. Your efforts to influence a colleague or boss’s behavior may seem ineffective at first. If the co-worker continues to cross the boundary you discussed, remind him or her of your conversation. This will demonstrate your seriousness about honoring the boundary.

If the person continues to violate the boundary and ignore consequences, further action may be needed.

Efforts to set and maintain boundaries in workplace relationships are especially difficult when the co-worker with behavioral issues is a supervisor.

The power dynamics between Kim and Mike made it difficult for him to set a consequence; as a manager, he felt he had little control or influence over a senior attorney.

But Mike took the risk of speaking with Kim directly. In a private meeting, he said he would be happy to discuss her concerns about his work but would not tolerate inappropriate behavior from her. From then on, Kim treated him with respect.

However, if a co-worker who is creating problems for you doesn’t honor requests for behavioral changes and boundary setting, consider whether it’s appropriate to talk to a supervisor — either yours or the boss of your colleague. If the inappropriate conduct is such that you believe you are working in a hostile work environment, don’t hesitate to immediately contact your supervisor and the human resources department.

In situations where these tactics fail — perhaps because the wrongdoer’s position makes him or her effectively immune from being disciplined — then you may need to consider leaving the organization.

You may find the following suggestions to also be helpful:

  • If you have difficulty in setting a boundary, seek support from other co-workers or friends to help you gain confidence.
  • To prepare yourself for the first conversation with the person whose behavior is inappropriate, write out what you want to say or role-play with a supportive colleague to test your planned approach.
  • Think through which aspects of the workplace relationship you have control and influence over and which you don’t. Keep them in mind as you interact with the offending co-worker.
  • Look at the situation from different angles. Consider what your workplace will be like if you continue to tolerate such a dysfunctional relationship and, alternatively, if the situation is resolved. These thought processes will help you chart a course of action. The more often you succeed in setting and reinforcing a boundary, the easier that task will get.

Once you learn effective boundary-management skills, you will help to create an environment where you are happier and able to do your best work.

MarkSachsMark Sachs is an organization consultant and executive coach in Silver Spring, Md., with decades of experience in public broadcasting. He’s worked in the newsroom of WFAE-FM in Charlotte, N.C., managed station relations for NPR and directed CPB’s management consulting service. He earned a master’s degree in organization development from American University and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in sociology from Rutgers University. He can be contacted through his website.