It’s the B word … (but not what you think!)

Illustration of brown picket fence with open gateBoundaries.

If you’ve ever said I’m so busy! or I have to… 

Or you’ve ever thought I’m so tired! or Why can’t someone else…

Or you’ve ever felt seriously resentful…

Your boundaries were being breached, whether you knew it or not, and whether or not you consciously had a boundary at all.

We need boundaries at work as well as in our personal lives. (I talked about this a bit in the video “Flexible Workplace: Problems & Solutions,” which you can find here.)

We need to know that we can dedicate uninterrupted time to getting our work done. We need to know that our co-workers, boss, and employees will respect our ideas and values (even if they don’t agree), and honor our need for time and space in and out of the office.

We need to know that we’re safe from abuse or attack.

And because we’re all different, we also have boundary needs that are personal and individual to us.

What’s a boundary?

We know and understand physical boundaries: the borders of our property, whether fenced or not; the walls of our houses; the doors of our private spaces.

These boundaries protect our physical property from random strangers, thieves, wild animals, the weather, and yes, occasionally from family members and friends.

No one would argue about that, though some with weak or nonexistent personal boundaries might have a hard time closing the door on those family members and friends, even when they desperately need to do so.

Personal and workplace boundaries

Personal boundaries protect a different kind of property: our time, energy, and emotions. They allow us to say “no” when necessary – which gives us the freedom to let someone through the door, saying “yes” when we want to.

Boundaries in the workplace define rules for behavior. They determine whether it’s okay for employees to come late to meetings, or if meetings will always start on time, with no “here’s what happened” review for those who slide in after the start time. (I guess you can tell I feel strongly about that one, eh?) They determine when and how performance feedback is delivered. And so on.

As a manager and leader, the boundaries you set for your teams and employees are what enable them to do their work effectively … or not. The ways you define what behavior will be allowed through the gate, and what won’t, is what creates the culture within your team or department. Your personal example and your definition of boundaries will determine whether or not they know they can work uninterrupted, have their ideas and values respected, feel safe from abuse, and so on.

The “how” of boundaries

This, of course, is the tricky part – and the million-dollar question.

Reams of books and articles have been written on the subject. Hours of classes have been taught. Oceans of ink have been expended in journals. And still people struggle.

So, no, I can’t tell you, once and for all, how to set a boundary for yourself or for your team.

But here are a few suggestions to start with.


What are your values? What are the values you want expressed at work, for your team?

Values help you define what you’re protecting with your boundaries. They’re what stays inside the walls and fences. And anything that threatens those values is what your boundaries keep out.

We think we know what our values are – but it’s not till you write them down that you really know. My students in a recent Strategic Planning workshop were surprised and intrigued by some of the values they discovered that were important to them, and it had a significant impact on how they framed their strategic goals and projects.

And when your values are out of alignment with your employer’s, you’ll probably feel resentful and unhappy a lot of the time – perhaps without knowing why.


Standards – values – what’s the difference?

It’s a bit of a thin gray line, but I see standards as defining ground rules for behavior that’s not necessarily bound by values.

For instance, a company might have strong values supporting a casual, flexible workplace. And on top of that, or alongside it, they might have standards defining acceptable attire and on-site presence when important clients visit or for the annual board meeting.

Again, standards for behavior create boundaries – in this case, boundaries around client interaction and the company’s board of directors.


To build a cohesive, supportive, high-performing team, you must allow each individual to be exactly that: an individual. Everyone deserves to have their preferences respected – within reason, of course; nudism in the office is probably not a preference one wants to encourage; nor, I would imagine, is a habit of eating raw garlic.

As the manager, you need to understand which of your team members enjoys public accolades for a job well done, and which would prefer a private conversation; which one likes chocolate cake for their birthday celebration, and which one is allergic to peanuts; and so on – you get the point.

How are preferences related to boundaries? Simple: consider other people’s preferences as their boundary that you don’t cross.

Not easy, but necessary

It’s a lot simpler to put up a fence around your yard than it is to establish personal and professional boundaries.

But trust me on this: you’ll be a lot happier and – and this is important! – more successful if you do.