Where are the boundaries?

Do you ever feel like something in your relationship with another person just “isn’t right” or the culture in a small group, or even an entire department, feels unproductive? One way to consider what might be causing problems is through the filter of boundaries—literal, figurative, cultural, personal, and so on.

The definition of a boundary is the ability to know where you end and where another person begins. Every person you come in contact with has boundaries, so you need to learn what they are and try to honor them. Boundaries vary widely from culture to culture and even from individual to individual. It is even more important to define and honor your own boundaries so that people can better relate to you.

1. In the workplace, boundaries are generally easier to understand. Boundaries are present whenever a person or department interfaces with another person or department. In theory, professional boundaries may be defined in a job description, as long as it clearly outlines basic responsibilities and reporting relationships; however, many times job descriptions define a role in terms that are too broad and general. Professional boundaries become more clearly defined when you can answer all of these questions: Who gives you your assignments? To whom do you report? Who gives you feedback? Who sets your work priorities?

2. While organizational boundaries may be defined literally through procedure and process, interpersonal boundaries are often intangible–it isn’t something that we can see. But just because you can’t see a boundary doesn’t mean that it isn’t there or that it isn’t important. When you think about needing space, setting limits, determining acceptable behavior, or creating a sense of autonomy, you are really talking about boundaries.

3. Boundaries help define our expectations. Boundaries define the limits and responsibilities of the people with whom you interact. Our personal boundaries can help ensure that we are safe, healthy and happy. When workplace boundaries are clearly defined, the organization works more efficiently in myriad ways—including that redundant work assignments are eliminated and performance is accountable.

4. It is not really possible to separate professional and interpersonal boundaries, because they both substantially impact productivity and the quality of the social environment. The clues to interpersonal boundaries include the tone people use with each other, the attitude and approach co-workers use when tasks are handled, the ability to focus on work objectives even with people you don’t like or with whom you are having personal conflict, the ability to effectively set limits with others who have poor boundaries, and clearly defining the consequences when a boundary is violated.

5. Interpersonal boundaries have a regrettably negative connotation, as if “boundary” is synonymous with “barrier.” It is a general misconception that “having boundaries” will distance you from others. However, the truth is that when you know where you end and others begin, you can then meaningfully engage with others because you won’t feel overwhelmed or unprotected. Having a sense of autonomy prevents the need to distance ourselves from others with a barrier-producing behavior. 

6. Ideally, workplace boundaries are thoughtfully negotiated in an open discussion about responsibilities, goals, and priorities prior to starting a new job or beginning a project. Even if this type of understanding wasn’t reached beforehand, it’s never too late to improve your interactions with your team members.

7. Appreciating boundaries is a great boon to resolving conflict. Your understanding of another person’s needs, interests, values, and concerns is essential to negotiating a win-win solution.

8. This is a leadership issue. Establishing boundaries and strategic priorities go hand in hand because they both support progress forward without drifting off into the weeds. Together they go a long way toward establishing productive work environments based on trust. Competent and credible leaders understand that clear boundaries and well-communicated priorities are linked, and consistently model both. When professional boundaries and priorities have been clearly defined, it’s very likely that a group can function effectively, even in the absence of its leader. If everyone on your team understands what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, then team members will feel safe in their roles. An effective leader understands that failing to define boundaries, having no boundaries, or having inappropriately rigid boundaries can have an unfavorable impact on their organization and employees.

9. Boundaries within an organization are the written and unwritten “rules of the road.” Having standards within a culture helps you spot prospects who are likely to be non-compliant before you engage with them as an employee or volunteer. Make sure your team knows the boundaries and is consistent in supporting them from end-to-end.

10.  Remember the sage advice, “We teach people how to treat us.” This is true at home, in a public place, and at work. Take a long look in the mirror: what sort of example are you setting? In every aspect from how you dress to how promptly your respond to email to how you use your cell phone in a public place, your boundaries will have no meaning if your actions don’t back up your values.

This is just a quick overview of a topic with substantial ramifications to our work as nonprofit professionals. One or two considerations here might help you get “un-stuck” in a situation that is preventing you from being successful.



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