To begin with, we need to define boundaries and why they are so important. One simple definition is that boundaries in relationship terms are about naming and making clear to others what’s okay and what’s not okay... and why. Failure to set boundaries can quickly lead to resentment, frustration and sometimes deep hurt.
With this in mind, why are we reluctant to set boundaries - and why does it feel so hard? Setting boundaries is vulnerable and brave work. For most of us, asking for what you want and don’t want can feel risky - plus holding others to account for their behaviours is equally gutsy (and daunting)!
Notably, when people are asked why they hesitate to set boundaries, the number one answer that emerged from research conducted by the Brené Brown Education & Research Group was: “I don’t want to make people angry, disappoint others, or make them stop liking me.”
The number two reason, related to the first, was the following: “I don’t know how to set boundaries without sounding selfish or unlikeable.”
Yet when people are asked to describe or explain the consequence of not setting boundaries, the overwhelming response is resentment, followed by anger, followed by frustration... and the responses sometimes go so far as to include deep emotional and psychological pain. These emotions eat away at our individual and collective confidence, and trust. They lead to people talking behind each other’s backs, to blame and to people not feeling seen and heard. Now, these are all behaviours known to erode healthy cultures and to break down productive working relationships – and even businesses.
If a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for developing the potential in people and processes - and is courageous enough to do so - then all of us are leaders. So, as leaders we need to:
Sidebar: Examples of boundaries
In relationships, both personal and professional, we need to understand that there are several areas where boundaries might need to be articulated, requested and respected.
Emotional: these are boundaries around inappropriate topics, emotional dumping, and dismissing emotions
E.g. “This isn’t a topic I’m ok with or willing to discuss further.”
Material: Boundaries around possessions, when they can be used, and how they are treated.
E.g. “My car cannot be used on weekends; material from this workshop can’t be copied and reproduced.”
Time/energy: Boundaries around time, punctuality, when to contact, favours and free labour.
E.g. “If you’re going to be late, please message me in advance of the meeting start time to let me know; let’s agree to take short breaks every 45-60 mins.”
Mental/spiritual: Freedom to have your own thoughts, beliefs, values and opinions.
E.g. “I respect that you may disagree with my opinion, and please don’t force your own.”
Physical: Proximity, touch, PDA (personal displays of affection), unwanted comments regarding appearance, gender, orientation or sexuality.
E.g. “I don’t find comments like that funny or appropriate.”