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Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

How are you setting boundaries at work?

EPISODE
18
This episode explores the mystery of boundaries and setting boundaries at work, as well as the mishap of workplace rules.

Introduction

Think about the structure of your average workday. Maybe you drive to work in the morning, have a meeting or two, eat lunch, keep working, then drive home. Maybe you wake up, sit down at your home office, and work remotely every day. Maybe you’re always on the go, like traveling or out in the field.

Now think about the content of your average workday. Like your job role. You might interact with customers a lot, or not at all. You could have a small team, even one direct report, that doesn’t take up much of your time, or you could be managing a large team that takes up pretty much all of your time.

You go back and forth between one task and another. You respond to an email, talk to someone on the phone, answer questions in person, go looking for a coworker with a question of your own, lead a meeting, listen in on a meeting, eat lunch by yourself, eat lunch with others. The list goes on. And on. And on.

All of that is just a small sample of who you are and what you do. Beyond coworkers and customers, you have friends and family, hobbies and interests, fears and passions. Take all of that, bundle it into one person, and that is who an individual is. Could be you, could be me, could be your direct reports, your manager, your significant other, your neighbors, strangers.

People are walking, talking clusters of complexity, with different identities and possibilities existing within each of us. What could possibly be similar across all these differences? What could be an idea that unites these differences, putting them on a level playing field? To me, the answer is boundaries.  

I’ll be going over three topics throughout this episode. The first topic is the mystery of boundaries. The second is the mystery of setting boundaries at work. The third and final topic is the mishap of workplace rules.

 

Boundaries

In the previous episode I talked about change management. It occurred to me that one of the most important yet least-talked about aspects of change management is what, exactly, changes. What is consistent across change, whether at the individual level or organizational level, regardless of industry, regardless of function? What is it that changes?

If you thought to yourself “boundaries,” then you’d be right. A change is a difference over time. And like any difference—whether over time or between people—there has to be something that dictates difference, something that answers the question “Where does one thing end and another begin?”

Here’s a good question to chew on: what is work? How do you define work? Is it something that you get paid for? If so, then what’s it called when you do a chore or raise a family? Is that work? Is work therefore something you put a lot of effort into? Okay, then what’s a hobby? Is doing your job, cleaning the dishes, and playing the guitar all work? Or are there different types of work?  

Your answer to the question of “what is work” is itself a boundary. Any definition is a boundary, and in that spirit I’ll define what a boundary is. Boundaries are limits. A perimeter, a fence, a wall, a line. The thing that determines where one thing ends and another begins.

We’re constantly setting boundaries at work and navigating both our own and others’ boundaries. Some boundaries are easy to see and feel because there’s a tangible marker, something in the physical world. Like a desk or a someone’s office. You know that that space is someone’s boundary because of the physical markers of a cubicle, walls, a door.

Then there are boundaries that are a little more invisible, but still have easily identifiable markers. Like when you’re in a meeting and when you’re not in a meeting. That’s pretty cut and dry – you’re either attending a meeting or you’re not. There’s not much grey zone there.

Or think about something like a job description. If you’re hiring and someone sends you their resume, then that resume should have a pretty good overlap with the job description. You expect people to have the skills and experience required for the boundaries of a job. If they don’t, then they’re outside those boundaries and really shouldn’t have applied in the first place.

But then there are boundaries that aren’t as clear cut. These tend to be more socially oriented. Like knowing when you can perform a certain task without interrupting others’ work, or when you should talk with a direct report about their behavior problems. Or when you yourself should or shouldn’t work outside your typical work hours.

There’s so much complexity to unwrap from those three examples. If you’re concerned about interrupting the workflow of a coworker, then you’re sensitive to that person’s boundaries and the boundaries they set up to get their job done. If you’re wondering when to talk to a direct report about their behavior, then you’re considering at what point they’re overstepping their boundaries into others’, like being argumentative or passive aggressive. And finally you have your own boundaries and those of your family. By working at home during non-work hours, you’re signaling to yourself and those around you that the boundary of your job has crossed into your boundary of home life, which crosses and cuts into the boundaries you have with your friends and loved ones.

I absolutely love the concept of boundaries. They’re so layered and they dictate so much of our lives, yet they’re so rarely talked about or thought about. And when they are discussed at work, terms like “setting boundaries at work” typically means something like setting personal boundaries for relationships with coworkers. But boundaries are so much more than that.

The main takeaway from this first section is that boundaries determine limits. Limits in someone’s workspace, with your skills, whether you achieved a goal, when a meeting’s over, when there’s conflict in your team, when you work outside your typical work hours, and so on. Boundaries are everywhere, and although this section was a bit more philosophical, it lays the groundwork for thinking about peoples’ boundaries.

 

Setting Boundaries at Work

Think about your personal space, your personal bubble. Like how physically close people can get to you before you feel uncomfortable. Now imagine that personal space being an invisible circle around you. For some people the circle’s small, meaning they don’t notice or care when others get really close to them. For other people, the circle’s big, meaning they really don’t like being close to others. If you’re at a grocery store, let’s say, and someone gets a little too close for comfort, then that person just entered your personal space, your personal bubble, and made you uncomfortable. In other words, that person broke through your boundary of personal space.

Earlier I suggested that people are walking, talking clusters of complexity. I could’ve said that people are clusters of boundaries and it’d still be accurate. Your personality, for example, is a set of boundaries, of how you act and think in certain situations around certain people. Different situations place different limits, different zones of preference or comfort, on how you act and think. You might be quiet around coworkers but talkative with your family. You might be sarcastic around one group of coworkers but be completely literal and serious around other coworkers.

In the previous episode I suggested that change management is people management. I’d go further to suggest that managing people is really managing boundaries, with change being one type of boundary. Remember that most boundaries are invisible – you can’t reach out and touch them. But those invisible lines can still be felt, sensed, and understood based on how people behave and respond to you.

The thing is, people have different levels of sensitivity to boundaries. And really that’s what setting boundaries at work is about, of being mindful of how your actions affect others, how people perceive what you say and do. Some people are super sensitive to others’ boundaries, always checking in, asking, reassuring. Others straight up don’t care about others’ boundaries, kind of saying and doing whatever they want whenever they want. But because you’re a people manager, it becomes even more complicated because you have to keep not only your boundaries in mind and how you interact with others, but you also have to manage your team members’ boundaries based on how they interact with each other and other employees in your company.

We’ve got plenty of topics and terms to describe all that, but the word “boundaries” is rarely used in those conversations. We hear things like conflict management and resolution. Performance improvement plan. Emotional intelligence. Inclusivity. Authenticity. Those all tap into boundaries and how to set boundaries at work but we don’t break those topics down into their smallest parts. Or, you know, boundary management.

The first step to setting boundaries at work is to understand and be aware of boundaries in general. The first section of this episode kind of covered that, to expose you to the idea.

The second step is to know what to look for in yourself and others when boundaries are close to being crossed or have been crossed. Look for distress, discomfort, annoyance. Like if you feel annoyed that a team member didn’t do something you asked, then they kind of violated your boundary of managerial power. Or if someone said something in a meeting and you notice that a team member is upset with that statement, then you can assume that some kind of boundary has been crossed. Like one coworker taking credit for another employees’ work, saying something offensive, or questioning their judgment.

The last step, relatively speaking, is talking it out. Meet with the employee who didn’t do what you asked to better understand why. Then set clear boundaries, if need be. Like the boundary that if you ask them to do something by a certain time, they should do it.

In the second example, meet with the employee who seemed upset, and ask why. What upset them? Is there anything you can do to manage their boundaries, or do you need to manage the boundaries of the person who made the original statement during the meeting?

And again, boundaries are just the building blocks for all this. The first example gets into insubordination, competence, trust. The second example gets into recognition, personality conflict, or credibility. So it may feel weird to anchor all of this in the terminology of boundaries, but I’m doing that to really drive home the notion that boundaries are foundational.

The main takeaway from this second section is that setting boundaries at work is kind of what you do on a daily basis already. You’re managing people, so you’re managing boundaries. And to most effectively manage those boundaries, you should first be aware of them, then look for behaviors that signal the crossing of a boundary, and finally talking it out.

 

Workplace Rules

So far I’ve described boundaries, as well as how to set boundaries at work. One last thing I wanted to discuss are special types of boundaries. Rules, in this case.

Straight from the dictionary, a rule is a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere. In other words, rules are clear boundaries of acceptable behavior. Rules are all around us. Think about cultural rules, like norms and traditions. Or sports, or board games. These all have different rules that guide behavior, dictating what can and can’t be done.

At work, rules are sometimes formalized, like in a policy guide written up by HR. Other times they’re more assumed, like word of mouth from you to your direct reports. And different teams may call these different things. Ground rules, expectations, guidelines, etiquette, codes, codes of conduct.

Rules are an attempt to create order. They’re protective yet limiting, and it’s a fine line between those two. Workplace rules can protect you from disciplinary measures, letting you know how far you can go without violating some code of conduct or preference for behavior. At the same time, rules are inherently limiting because they put a cap, a stop, a barrier, on behavior.

With too many rules, or rules that are too strictly enforced, you get into micromanagement. Or more like Kindergarten really. Do this, don’t do that. Follow all these rules. Remember all these rules. Don’t forget about the rules.

The more rules you have, the more time you’ll spend making sure people are following those rules rather than being productive yourself or having a meaningful impact on your team. Now sure, some managerial or supervisory roles do require you to track a lot of rules all the time, especially in hazardous environments and those with safety concerns. But for most teams, too many rules can be suffocating to productivity and trust.

On the other hand, with too few workplace rules, or none at all, you get into what’s called laissez-faire management. This is hands-off management, where you rarely, if ever, use your managerial responsibilities.

Some rules are needed to create a little bit of order. Without any rules, without any guidance from a manager, it’s very easy for productivity to plummet. Employees might not do much work because they know they won’t be punished or coached – after all, they’re not breaking any rules because there aren’t any to break. Or individual team members might work toward separate, perhaps conflicting goals because there aren’t really any rules keeping them all aligned.

There’s always a sweet spot. Not too many, not too few. And these rules can come up organically, preferably whenever someone new joins your team or when you think it’s time for a quick refresh.

With that said, one fascinating mishap about rules is only mentioning them after they’ve been broken. Avoid this as best you can. Sure, your team will sometimes do things you never thought about before or things you never thought you’d have to set rules around, but those aren’t as common.

What’s interesting about this mishap is that if you don’t communicate rules, then you run the risk of being seen as a laissez-faire manager. Yet at the same time, if you only tell people rules after they’re broken, then you run the risk of being seen as a micromanager. So it’s kind of lose/lose, the worst of both worlds. The easy solution is to let your team know about rules ahead of time.

The main takeaway from this final section is that there are three mishaps to keep in mind when it comes to rules in your team. One mishap is having too many rules, which leads to micromanaging. Another is having too few rules, which leads to laissez-faire management. Finally, even if you’ve settled in the middle with the right amount of rules, you could be seen as both a micro- and laissez-faire manager if you only tell people the rules after they’re broken.

 

Conclusion

As a recap of this episode, I discussed the mystery of boundaries and how to set boundaries at work, as well as some mishaps around workplace rules. People management is boundary management, and boundaries are limits that we set for ourselves or others. Sometimes we want to surpass those limits, like with achieving a goal or developing a skill. Other times we should be sensitive to others’ boundaries, like not interrupting their work or making inappropriate comments.

Having too many boundaries can be restrictive, whereas having too few can be disorienting. As a people manager, you should aim to be mindful of your own and others’ boundaries and how to navigate them. Then coach your team members about the importance of boundaries so that your entire team can have a better understanding of others’ limits. Make those invisible lines visible, in the sense that they’re thought about, discussed, and understood across the whole team.

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss drivers of engagement. 

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