How to establish boundaries at work

Set clear, concise and consistent guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Once your team determines boundaries, think of them like a fence that separates what is acceptable with what is not.

Football fans may lament that the 2018 NFL Season is in the rearview mirror, but lessons linger long after events fade. The Pittsburgh Steelers / Antonio Brown drama grabbed the headlines this year as he missed practices, walked away from the team multiple times, had sideline flare-ups, and went off on present and past teammates, proving once again the wisdom of Dr. Brenda Freeman: “Bad behavior left unchecked grows.”

While you may not have an employee with a multimillion contract airing dirty laundry in public, you might have a rock star or specialist whose actions are inexcusable. The sooner you address bad behavior, the less likely it is to spiral out of control.

Boundaries, or clearly defined indicators of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, protect resources and relationships. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to take steps to establish boundaries, including:

  • Set and maintain boundaries for you.
  • Establish and articulate boundaries for your team.
  • Monitor and maintain boundaries.
  • Respond and repair when boundaries are violated.

In order to lead effectively, it is imperative you have clear boundaries for yourself personally and professionally. Your management of your boundaries serves as the model for boundaries within your team. Navigating them successfully empowers you to oversee boundaries within your team.

The first step in setting good boundaries is awareness. You must know what is essential for you, and for your team, to function at the highest level. It is equally important to know you and your company’s deal-breakers.

For your boundaries, identify what energizes you, what drains you, and what pulls you off track. Encourage your team members to make the same assessment for themselves. Then, work together to identify the same information for your team as a whole. Boundaries that your team may discuss could include a commitment to a drama-free work zone, where each individual works hard, makes time for fun and treats each other with respect.

Find a way to communicate boundaries within your team in ways that are clear and respectful. When individuals express their boundaries, they don’t need to defend, debate, or detail their feelings. For the team, it’s important that boundaries are negotiated and agreed upon by consensus, understanding that as the leader, you may need to set specific boundaries and negotiate the middle ground between competing priorities. Examples of powerful team boundaries include talking to people, not about people, handling conflict civilly, being on time, meeting deadlines and producing quality work.

Too many boundaries create confusion, exhaustion and opportunities for conflict. Make them few and make them important. Monitor your team’s process and progress and address issues when it appears boundary violations are imminent. Recognizing potential problems ahead of time empowers you and your team to be proactive and make adjustments, rather than forcing you to respond to the damage that occurs when a boundary is broken.

Once you’ve created a boundary, view it like a fence. It separates what is acceptable from what is not. Keep in mind that fences have gates — places where people can get from one side to the other with permission. Know when it’s time to open the gate or adjust the boundary, and do it with intention, clarity and consistency. Take time to periodically review your personal and team boundaries to see if they are working and whether new boundaries are needed.

Good boundaries make good teams, just as good fences make good neighbors. Become a boundary master and you will increase engagement, productivity and your impact as a leader.

Dr. Sherene McHenry, The People IQ Expert™, works with organizations who want to improve their people skills so they can increase engagement, productivity and profitability. Learn more at

February 2019
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