How to Set Boundaries at Work: Tips for Founders, Managers, and Employees

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When people talk about setting boundaries at work, it is often in terms of personal or individual boundaries and how they affect work-life balance. This balance is certainly important, but so is office-life balance. According to a PENN Behavioral Health study, Setting Boundaries at Work, there are several types of boundaries: job responsibility boundaries, interpersonal boundaries, and personal boundaries.

These boundaries start with the founder, define how managers do their job, and impact individual employees. Here is how to set boundaries in the workplace if you are a company founder, manager, or employee.

For Founders

Determine your values

Start by defining a corporate culture that sets you apart, including what you expect from employees. Do you run the type of shop that expects employees to spend 80+ hours a week on the job, or is yours an organization that encourages employees balance time inside and outside of the office? Either option is fine, but it should be communicated at the outset and to all new hires.

Lead by example

Set the tone that you expect from others in your company. If your company has grown from a small group of friends who share the same attitude and vocabulary into a much larger organization, you may have to set new guidelines for communication. Everyone in your company, without exception, should treat each other with respect. That starts from the top.

Make clear who is responsible for what

Divvying up responsibilities and even establishing a hierarchy will help people within the company to set and manage their own expectations, which makes everyone’s job easier. It also eliminates confusion and hurt feelings over project ownership in the future.

Know where you will draw the line

Even if an employee handbook seems too rigid for your small company, there should be some rules spelling out exactly what is expected from employees (including executives). This way, when behavior crosses a line, you do not need to be the bad guy. The rules can do the work for you.

For Managers

Communicate expectations

A manager’s job is to make sure employees understand fully what is expected of them. Managers often try to make up for employees who are not meeting expectations, which will only add to your workload and make your job miserable. (It doesn’t help your team, either.) Stand up for yourself, your company, and your direct reports by being clear about priorities, deadlines, and time management.

Allow employees to disagree with you

This is not to say you should tolerate insolence or mutiny from your staff. But be open to employee ideas that you may not have considered. You are doing your own job and helping them do theirs, so it’s OK to accept help from them as well.

Stand by your decisions

On the other hand, you should feel confident in the decisions you have made, regardless of grumbling or gossip from staff.

Leave some wiggle room

Parents always say they love their children equally, even though they treat them differently. Managers can do the same. Accommodating a stellar employee with a special request is a perfectly reasonable if that’s what you want to do, and you don’t owe any explanation to other employees.

For Employees

Know what you need

Granted, it’s a tough job market out there, and everyone wants to work for a great company. But if the company culture is not a good fit for you, it’s not the right job. It’s your responsibility to know where you need to draw the line—whether it’s answering emails over the weekend, or leaving the office before 7 every night—and let your employer know when your personal lines are crossed.

Prove yourself

Show your employers that you can exceed expectations within the boundaries you have set for yourself. If you do not want to be tied to your cellphone at all hours, be a quick responder to messages when you receive them. And allow for flexibility when your team needs it during crunch times.

Say no the right way

Passive aggressive isn’t pretty. Do not martyr yourself by taking on too much work or taking ownership of everything, and then resenting your employer. Pushing back in a calm and thoughtful way and sharing the workload will help you create a better product, and will help you shine as an individual.

Whatever level you are at in your company, you can always learn more about how to communicate better at work. Start with our class, The Influencer: How to Persuade and Succeed at Work.

Learn more about The Influencer course at GA