Good day, team,

By special request, I’m resending a challenge I first sent out in October 2006; it’s still relevant today.

The coach’s challenge this week is about setting healthy boundaries with people at work. Professional boundaries are important because they define the limits and responsibilities of all members of a team. When workplace boundaries are clearly defined, the organization works more efficiently because redundant work assignments are eliminated and people are held accountable for specific tasks. When everyone in an organization is aware of who is responsible for what, a healthier workplace results. It then becomes very difficult for someone to blame others for his or her failed or inadequate performance, and managers can clearly identify superlative contributions.

With professional boundaries and priorities clearly defined, a group can function effectively even in the absence of its leader. If everyone on a team understands what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, then team members feel safe in their roles. A smooth-functioning organization is a tangible demonstration of the team leader’s commitment to mutual success, which creates trust. Every team leader is responsible for setting the tone of the group by clearly defining acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior.

Effective leaders understand that failing to define boundaries, having no boundaries, or having inappropriately rigid boundaries can negatively affect their organization and employees. In some cases, boundaries need to be firm. For example, lying, stealing, and verbally or physically abusing others are never allowed.

It may sound as if the responsibility to create a smooth-functioning organization falls only upon the team leaders; however, every team member has a role to play. Each person must be willing to speak up to a colleague or supervisor, clearly define any problem, and help find a resolution that works for everyone.

Interpersonal boundaries must also be negotiated, because they substantially impact workplace productivity and the quality of the social environment. Parameters for interacting include the following:

* The tone, attitude and approach co-workers use with each other.
* The ability to focus on work objectives even when people dislike each other or are in conflict.
* The ability to effectively set limits with those who have poor boundaries.
* Clearly defined consequences when a boundary is violated, and actions that back up these words.

Here are some suggestions for setting healthy boundaries with your team members*:

1. Know your limits: what you can do well within the allotted time frame.
Don’t exaggerate your ability by overselling it. Give accurate estimates. Delivering a good product on time will improve your credibility, while missing deadlines or delivering a substandard product will only hurt your reputation.

2. Tactfully and openly communicate about goals and limitations.
Don’t try to undersell or misrepresent your ability. Underselling artificially prevents you from being able to demonstrate your professional skills, which might affect your career advancement. When discussing your limitations, focus on what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. Keep your focus on your positive intentions; ask for help when it’s needed to ensure good quality work; actively engage in problem solving; and don’t complain about the problem. Ensure that others are receiving the message you intended by asking for feedback when it’s not forthcoming.

3. Be available to discuss differences and reach agreements.
Reflect back your understanding of the other person’s needs, interests and concerns. Attempt to negotiate win-win solutions.

4. Don’t be afraid to let people know if they’re acting inappropriately. Workplace bullying is much more common than we think; it can come in the form of expressing undo negativity toward another, intentionally excluding others from team activities, or ganging up on someone. It can also come in the form of domination by withholding information or not actively engaging and contributing to the work. It’s important to let people know when they act inappropriately, that it is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. The emotional health and safety of an organization depends on direct and clear communication when someone has trespassed on a professional and/or personal boundary.

This week, try setting healthy boundaries with your team members. You’ll find that establishing boundaries and priorities go hand in hand because they both help manage interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Together they go a long way toward establishing productive work environments based on trust. Competent and credible leaders understand these principles and consistently model them for their staff.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

* Special thanks to the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at UCSF for most of the information in this challenge.