5 Ways to Set Up Better Boundaries to Improve Work Relationships

As a parent, I’m used to espousing the value of boundaries. If you’ve ever explained to a child why they can’t play in the street, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Boundaries keep us safe. They draw that line in the sand between safe and unsafe, good and bad, and acceptable and unacceptable. While it may not be that black and white all the time, there is value to be found in our adult lives—especially our professional lives—in understanding the role of good boundaries.

Many times, boundaries are seen are as a negative in the adult world. They’re an impasse. A non-negotiable. In fact, they should be seen as the opposite: an agreement.

When we set up boundaries for ourselves in how we relate to our professional world and the people in it, we’ll find ourselves wrestling with fewer questions and conflicts and, ultimately, be left with stronger relationships and a character that’s hard to question.

If you want to set up better boundaries for the health of the relationships in your professional life, follow these five guidelines.


5 Golden Rules for Professional Boundaries for Better Work Relationships

1) Don’t let overtime lure you in.

No matter where you fall on the business ladder, overtime can be a persistent temptation. Whether motivated by extra pay that you could really use, the idea that it will make you look really good in front of the boss, or give you that much-needed leg up on the competition, overtime offers some attractive benefits.

It can also be a trap that can drain your mental and physical health, damage your performance over time, and hurt your relationships. In the beginning of a career (or even late into one), if you’re trying to impress, doing so through overtime, through committing your availability, what you’re doing is sacrificing a boundary.

You may be training employees, managers, or bosses to rely on you to be there whenever they might need you: and that can easily spiral out of control. While you can offer yourself up for working late on occasion, don’t make the mistake of making it a habit. You’ll be thankful for it later when you don’t burn out or resent the people you work with.

2) Respect the job responsibilities of self and others.

Professional boundaries are a big deal. Have you ever been hired for a job only to find out that it came with a lot more responsibilities than you expected? Maybe things that were above your pay grade? Maybe a co-worker asked you for a favor when they were in a pinch and you helped them out...and then they kept asking.

When it comes to roles and responsibilities in the workplace, you should know who you report to, who gives you tasks, who you’re ultimately responsible to, and what exactly is going to be expected of you. While there’s something to be said for going above and beyond, it shouldn’t be at the cost of what is actually expected of you.

By the same token, helping a co-worker is great, but not if they’re taking advantage of you and your time and costing you in your performance. Know your boundaries. That might mean saying no and letting some people down.

3) Prioritize your personal boundaries.

Personal boundaries are what we think of when we’re told not to bring our work home with us. It’s the idea that we shouldn’t be checking our work e-mail on the weekends, shouldn’t take work calls at the dinner table, and should have these “sacred” spaces around our lives that are inherently work-free.

There’s value in rest. Not just in being home, or bed, or watching television, but truly being able to turn off “work mode” and decompress. You can’t do that if you don’t have the boundary set up that allows you to shut out work and the problems that come with it. Because, let me tell you, if you let it, it will never stop.

4) Guard and protect interpersonal boundaries.

Interpersonal boundaries are a different story. With all of the news reports in the past year about which celebrities and public figures stepped over the line to harass and assault co-workers, employees, and peers, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant when it comes to guarding interpersonal boundaries. It’s not just about protecting a reputation, it’s about protecting the safety and well-being of the people around us.

How do we do that, though? It starts with being aware. Aware of what is and isn’t appropriate for where we are. Tones of voice. Topics of conversation. Jokes. Comments. Physical contact. How things may be interpreted differently from how you interpret them. For the sake of our relationships, set these boundaries and protect them: something that takes a proactive, intentional approach.

5) Know what you value.

Ultimately, your boundaries are best set when you frame them well. Boundaries aren’t arbitrary. If you know what’s important to you, you will better know where your boundaries need to be. Does volunteering matter to you? Spending time with your kids on the weekends? Family dinner every weeknight? How about running (like me)?

What matters to you translates into your boundaries and, ultimately, into your relationships: both personal and professional.