The Line in the Sand

Boundaries are funny things. They are the personal and interpersonal rules that you create for yourself, your guidelines around acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. They are unique to you: formed from the array of your life experiences, your family and home, and the wider culture and community that you grew up in. 

But they are moving goal posts as well, because you have different boundaries for different groups of people in your life and the different settings you inhabit every day. There is no exact science or algorithm for determining what boundary you’ll be using at any moment or the boundaries the people around you are operating by either.

In a nutshell: we don’t walk around wearing t-shirts or sandwich boards that declare our boundary status. There is no social platform button to indicate: “Today is a good day for a hug, but only if you were part of my personal bubble back in 2020.”

Think about the boundaries that you have at work. These are just 3 examples, but there are many more types of boundaries you probably have without even knowing it:

  • Physical: how close do you allow a colleague to stand next to you until it’s no longer comfortable and they are “in your space?”  How much time do you like to spend alone vs. sharing a physical workspace (and lunchroom / coffee area) with someone else?
  • Emotional: when you hit a rough patch, whom do you turn to for a listening ear? Or do you turn to anyone at all? How do you react when someone shares something difficult with you, whether it is work-related or not?
  • Time: what rules do you have around start and end times for meetings? How do you react when you are late or when someone else is late? What do you do when a meeting runs overtime?

For any of these scenarios, your answer is going to depend on the person you are, the experiences you’ve had, and the lessons you’ve learned from those around you. The same will be true for all your coworkers. By taking time to make sure your lines are clear and you understand the lines of your coworkers, you can head off uncomfortable conversations that, when left to fester, can grow into outright conflict. Using the example of meeting times above, let’s reflect on some tips for clarifying your boundaries:

  • Be honest with yourself: Think about the rules you have gathered over time that have culminated in your own guidelines for time. “I grew up in a household where it felt like my family was constantly late for everything. I always found that embarrassing as a kid, so I know that I prefer being on time / early for meetings.”
  • Be honest with your colleague: If you don’t tell them, they’ll never know.  Unless you share with your coworker that this is important, they’re relying on guesswork and on their own rules pertaining to time. “I have a personal preference for keeping meetings on time, and I know we have still have more points to cover.”
  • Don’t be afraid to say no: Assess if this is an appropriate time to draw your line. Is your team dealing with a crisis or time-related emergency? Or is your meeting about regular workload that can be addressed another day? “I’m going to need to leave soon / now. Can we set up another meeting to touch base on the items we have left at a later point?”
  • Show care for their perspective too: Just as you are wanting understanding from your colleague, show them that same respect in kind. “I hope this is okay by you. I know these are my preferences I shared, but I’d be open to hearing and learning about yours too.”

Your Engaged Assignment: The next time something or someone at work rubs you the wrong way, take the time to ask yourself: “Was there a boundary crossed for me in this situation? If so, what can I do to communicate what I need more clearly to that person?” Craft a message that shows you care – about what’s important to you, and to them, and to the work that you are accomplishing together every day.

Join us for our 4-part course in The Art of HR series: “Essential People Management Skills.” Let’s look at different types of boundaries and how they manifest in the workplace; and the steps that you can take right now to help both yourself and your colleagues manage all your different lines in the sand.