How to set clear boundaries at work

Setting and holding boundaries at work is often perceived as uncooperative and mean-spirited. Many believe that you have to choose between playing ball and keeping peace or being labeled as a poor team player. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, not setting clear boundaries leads to diminished cooperation, conflicts being swept under the rug, lower psychological safety, and widespread feelings of resentment and burnout. To avoid that, we must learn how to set boundaries in a way that respects everybody’s needs. Here’s how.

Start by clearly and objectively stating your boundaries. For example, you might say, “I need you to coordinate with me before committing our team to unplanned work.”

Communicate your needs and avoid judging the other person. Instead of, “Why can’t you use the issue tracking system like everybody else?” you might say, “I need all requests filed in the issue tracking system.”

You might feel the need to explain and defend yourself — resist the urge. A clear “no” and a statement of your boundary allows the other side to choose how they respond. We’re not aiming to blame or control the other person, they are free to decide how they meet our needs in a way that doesn’t interfere with theirs.

Finally, clearly state your follow-through. How will you respond if the boundary is crossed? “I will not triage and prioritize requests sent through email.”

This will be uncomfortable and might bring up feelings of guilt, shame, and even fear. It’s normal to feel that way at first. With practice, you’ll learn to state your boundaries objectively and focus on your needs without blaming or trying to control the other person. And you’ll learn to feel good about it.

Best of all, you’ll notice that the clarity and predictability of clear boundaries lead to increased trust!