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How to Set Boundaries With Coworkers

Setting boundaries at work, especially with coworkers, can be intimidating. In the United States, we put a lot of value on productivity and hours worked, as well as “not rocking the boat”. So setting boundaries, which often put reasonable limits on our productivity and can upset others, seems like a no-go. However, just like in our personal lives, it’s important to have clear boundaries at work. When we don’t have boundaries, we can become burnt out and resentful. Boundaries also help us preserve relationships that can feel unbalanced or toxic. While it can feel challenging or even scary to express them, boundaries are actually essential for mental wellness at work. The tricky bit with boundaries is expressing and enforcing them, and in a workplace setting, this can feel uncomfortable at first. It isn’t always easy to advocate for yourself, especially if you tend to be a people pleaser.

Here are a few reasons why it can be difficult to set boundaries with coworkers:  

  • You’re afraid of losing opportunities. You’re worried that if you speak up, you won’t be considered for new projects or roles at your job. 
  • You want the people you spend 8+ hours with a day to like you. We all want to be liked! And even though it’s not true, some people worry that having boundaries makes you unlikeable. 
  • You don’t want to rock the boat or upset anyone at work. Work can be stressful enough without having to deal with interpersonal problems on top of it. Keeping your head down seems safer.
  • You want to be seen as a good employee, and you’re worried that advocating for yourself will be seen as high maintenance or not a hard worker. 
  • You have a hard time with confrontation. It’s never easy to deal with awkward or uncomfortable interpersonal situations, like workplace drama or saying no to someone who supervises you. 

Boundaries at work let people feel safer and less stressed. Instead of having a workforce that is spending all their time and energy wondering how to interact with each other, setting boundaries can cultivate a culture where staff can focus on what they’re there to do – their jobs. 

If you’re feeling burnt out, resentful of your job, overwhelmed, unsupported, or otherwise frustrated with your coworkers, it might be time to think about setting some work boundaries. What specifically is not working for you? What are your limits when it comes to work-life balance? Is there a specific coworker who makes you feel uncomfortable? Are you being given more work than you can reasonably handle? Once you narrow down the specifics of what isn’t working, you’ll have a blueprint for where you need to implement some boundaries. 

How to talk about your boundaries with coworkers

There are many ways to talk to your coworkers about your boundaries. Depending on your work situation, it may be beneficial to talk to your supervisor first, to make sure you have the support of management. If your supervisor isn’t respectful of your boundaries, it may be helpful to ask HR or another advocate to sit in on the meeting. 

One helpful way to approach any kind of difficult conversation is to use the Radical Candor method. When you’re talking to someone about something hard, you want to make it clear that you care about the person with whom you are speaking, and you want to be clear and direct about the issue at hand.  

“Hi, Jolene. I really appreciate how you always take the time to chat when we have a chance. I’m not comfortable discussing my romantic life at work, but I’d love to hear more about the book I’ve seen you reading.”

The important thing to remember about boundaries is that other people don’t have to understand your boundaries. They just have to respect them. 

You might also find it more helpful to have your boundaries written down somewhere that people can easily reference them. Sending an email with what you need to say to all relevant parties is another way you can set boundaries. The nice thing about having things in writing is that people will have a copy. If people have questions, they can refer back to what you have written instead of you constantly having to explain yourself. 

If you’re doing your best to set boundaries with your coworkers but they aren’t sticking, it might be time to bring in your supervisor or HR. As an employee, you have certain rights at work and there should be people on your team who are there to protect those. Unlike in conflicts in your personal life, you can call in extra support at work. You can ask your boss or supervisor to step in and mediate coworker disputes if there are any. 

“No” is a complete sentence.  

While it’s totally acceptable to give a reason for establishing a boundary, with some boundaries that is not necessary. Explaining why you need the boundaries you need can help people come to terms with them and it can help people to remember and therefore respect your boundaries. However, some boundaries don’t need an explanation. “Please don’t touch me at work” “I’m uncomfortable when you speak to me like that” “I need some space” etc. 

Sometimes people have a hard time adjusting to a new boundary. It can be the result of habits being hard to break. As long as they are genuinely trying to respect your new boundaries, giving them time to adjust can go a long way. Of course, some boundaries don’t offer any wiggle room, and that’s up to you, but if you can be understanding while your coworkers adjust to your new expectations, it can leave everyone feeling less frustrated. 

Remember, you deserve to have your boundaries respected. 

People don’t have to agree with your boundaries to respect that they exist. Deliver boundaries with confidence, so that people don’t try to see what they can get away with. 

Instead of just saying what you want someone to stop doing, give them options of what they can do instead to complete work while respecting this boundary. (ex. Please don’t cc me on every email in this conversation with someone else, just send me an email summary when the conversation is over, or let’s have a phone call to talk about what I need to know).

Keep in mind that boundaries don’t always stay the same

If your boundaries are too rigid you might find yourself constantly struggling to adapt to change or getting overly defensive. In the same way, if your boundaries aren’t strong enough, you will probably also have a hard time. You want to find that sweet spot of a strong boundary that you can enforce, while also being open to doing things differently if it serves you better. You’re allowed to change your mind. 

Finally, prepare some responses in advance

It can be tricky to think on your feet, especially when someone is violating a boundary you have set. If you’re worried about pushback at work after setting boundaries for yourself, try to make a plan for what you’ll do or say. If someone violates your boundary what will you say? Write out some ideas and keep them in a note on your phone so they’re handy at the moment. 

Be clear – maybe write things down if it helps. In a workplace, systems and processes keep things running smoothly. Having a clear boundary can make it easier for people to follow than a murky one. Remind yourself that it’s a good thing to advocate for yourself.

If you need help setting boundaries with coworkers, our Wellbeing at Work program can help.

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