How Leaders Can Set Better Boundaries at Work (And Encourage Their Teams To Do The Same!)

How Leaders Can Set Better Boundaries at Work (And Encourage Their Teams To Do The Same!)

Are you experiencing any challenges with boundaries at work? Perhaps you’re struggling to identify what would make for healthy boundaries in your team or what changes you should implement. Or maybe you’re trying to set some clear rules and expectations, but your employees are resisting your actions.

So how can you, as a leader, set better boundaries at work – for yourself and your team?

What are workplace boundaries?

First thing first, what do we even mean by boundaries? Boundaries are simply expectations or ground rules.

American researcher, author and podcaster Brené Brown defines them very simply as, ‘What is ok and what is not ok.’ Ideally, when boundaries are clear and well-communicated, everyone knows how to behave and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

The problem is that often things aren’t as clear cut, which is why leaders can find themselves in difficult positions where poor boundaries are affecting everything. From day-to-day productivity to relationships between team members, it impacts their own well-being and the company’s culture.

The problem with poor workplace boundaries

Examples of poor workplace boundaries may look like this:

  • Having to work on evenings, weekends, or even on paid holidays.
  • Skipping lunch on a regular basis due to excessive workload or ‘being expected’ to do so.
  • Not taking regular breaks in between meetings or sitting down for extended periods of time without getting up from your desk because of work pressures and tight or unrealistic deadlines.
  • Not taking sick days when you’re unwell.
  • Regularly working overtime, especially when it’s unpaid.

When they become habitual, these behaviours start to have a negative impact on your employees. In the long run, poor physical and mental boundaries will damage someone’s work/life balance and affect their well-being.

Over time, poor boundaries at work can easily lead to:

  • Stress and burnout
  • Reduced productivity
  • Unhappy staff
  • And a higher turnover.

So as a leader, what can you do to set better boundaries for yourself and your team?

A stressed looking woman holding her head

Set clear boundaries for yourself as a leader

Setting healthy boundaries has to start with you – the leader. Our desire for connection and sense of ok-ness is so strong, we learn how and when to boundary-set from those in positions of power around us. We take cues on what is culturally ‘the norm’ or considered ok from them. Therefore, to run an effective business or manage a successful team, you need to know how to get the most out of yourself first. This involves:

  • Knowing your personal limits and capacity. Be honest with yourself (and your colleagues) about who you are, and how much you’re able to give and take on at work.
  • Understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness is key in leadership. Being aware of the areas in which you excel or where you may need additional support or development allows you to lead your team with honesty and build rapport and trust with others. No one is perfect, and you needn’t hide your professional vulnerabilities. But it’s important your team see you as taking responsibility for your own weak spots and seeking professional self-development to enhance them.
  • Spotting any skills gaps. Similarly, admitting where you may need extra help and assistance allows you to seek the support or development you need. And that, in turn, makes you a better leader.
  • Not overworking yourself and having a good work/life balance. By protecting your own mental space and time, you’re not only safeguarding and promoting your own well-being but also creating a great example for your team. When they see you – their leader – prioritising down-time and rest as an active part of high performance, and respecting boundaries that allow for that, they’ll be more likely to do the same.

Boundaries in your day-to-day tasks

When it comes to your day-to-day work, also consider the following:

  • Delegating any tasks. Are you guilty of doing work that you shouldn’t be doing? Do you struggle to delegate to your team members, to the point you’re not only creating extra work for yourself but also hindering their ability to perform their roles or develop their careers and skills?
  • Learning to prioritise. We’re all guilty of this, to an extent. Doing ‘easy’ or ‘quick’ work first is always tempting – it means we can tick more tasks off our to-do lists, but are we prioritising correctly? By taking care of the most impactful tasks first, we can be more efficient, productive, and successful. And what if we save ourselves some time in the process too?
  • Make time for breaks. Do you take your lunch breaks? Do you set up dedicated ‘do-not-disturb’ time in your diary for deep work? And do you take regular short breaks during the day and in between meetings? These are important boundaries to protect your mental and physical well-being that can, in turn, make you a better leader of people.
  • Avoid ‘death by meetings’. Are you attending back-to-back meetings every single day of the week so you never have the chance to sit down and reply to emails or do any other work before home time? If that sounds familiar, make sure you exclude yourself from meetings that aren’t overly relevant to you. If you don’t need to be there, or if a decision can be made by email or by involving someone else, let’s not put that meeting in the diary!

Set clear boundaries for your team members

Boundaries are important to you as a leader. But they also matter to your team. So how can you set clear workplace boundaries for and with your team members?

  • Define job roles and responsibilities. Take time to set clear expectations, targets, and objectives, and to communicate them fully. This gives you and your team a tangible way to measure progress and key milestones.
  • Create a positive workplace culture. When employees feel they’re doing meaningful work and you have open communication and strong core values, their happiness, productivity, and engagement soar. Plus, they have no reason to leave.
  • Encourage your team to take breaks and have a healthy work/life balance. Make sure your employees take time off for short breaks during the day (including lunch) but also longer holidays. Don’t expect them to answer emails or take calls outside of contracted hours, weekends, or holidays. And wherever you can, find ways to promote healthy practices such as good nutrition, relaxation, and exercise.
  • Offer training and guidance. Look for personal and professional development opportunities to give your team the best chance of success in their roles. Also, wherever possible, support their career aspirations and progression.
  • Clarify reporting lines and org charts. Are your employees clear on who they report to or who they can go to for help and support? Do they know who to go to with any issues, challenges, or suggestions?

A smiling boss having a conversation with a younger employee

How to overcome challenges in boundary setting

If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you’re experiencing challenges with some of the physical boundaries that exist (or perhaps don’t exist) in your workplace. And if your team is resisting the boundaries you’re trying to put in place, here are some helpful suggestions.

Always communicate, don’t assume

All too often, boundaries are being pushed or entirely overlooked by team members or others within your organisation simply because they either:

A) don’t realise it’s a boundary

B) don’t understand the impact of ignoring it.

Think about setting up verbal ‘contracts’ so that everyone knows and understands expectations, rather than assuming they already know them.

Even better? Include your team in creating the expectations and boundaries in the first place. Ask yourself, “Are these really shared goals, expectations and boundaries, or are they goals, expectations and boundaries shared? I.e. have they had a voice in their creation, or am I making decisions and dictating TO them”. Opt for the former, every time.

When people know that boundaries are important to the business, you get them invested and involved. You all share a common goal, and the behaviours you’re suggesting are there to protect everyone. You’re doing this with people’s best interests in mind, so it’s important that you communicate that clearly and openly for your team to come on board.

Stand firm in your boundaries (but leave room for listening and improvement)

Teams, circumstances, work dynamics, and challenges change. If you’re implementing boundaries that don’t sit well with everyone and offset the team balance somehow, then you may need to reconsider or adapt. There’s a difference between being fair and being consistent by standing firm vs being rigid and inflexible. If something isn’t working (and you see a valid reason for it), listen and make changes for the greater good of the team.

Don’t be hypocritical in your own actions

When work gets busy and the pressure is on, it can be easy to forget all our best intentions and revert back to old habits and behaviours that don’t serve us. Especially during stressful times, it’s important to remember why you set boundaries for yourself and your team in the first place.

As the leader, your employees will look to you for guidance, so the responsibility to adhere to the rules and expectations you set starts with you. Always lead by example and make sure you’re creating the culture and embodying the values that you want everyone else at work to live by.

Better boundaries equal a more productive workplace for all

In a nutshell, clear and healthy boundaries at work help protect you and your employees. They clarify responsibilities, protect staff’s physical and emotional energy, and stop your company from experiencing the effects of burnout, poor performance and productivity, and high turnover.

However, setting good, healthy boundaries that work for your specific team may not happen overnight. It’s a process that may take time, so expect to be patient, kind, and consistent while things settle.

And if you’d like some coaching, help, and expertise with setting boundaries at work to create a more positive culture based on transparency and open and honest communication, check out my services. Or drop me a line, and let’s chat some more.

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