I once managed a very talented graphic designer who could never seem to hit deadlines without staying late and working weekends.
She was miserable. As her boss, I was worried.
The reason for the late work wasn’t because she was slow. Her output was fantastic. The problem was that most of the day she would get pulled into "urgent" projects for our salespeople who needed custom pitch decks.
She’d often work all day on those, and then stay up late doing her marketing design work for me.
We didn’t have the budget to hire another designer to spread the load. So I suggested she tell the sales team to give her more warning for upcoming "urgent" projects. I told her that this would help her to manage her work, instead of being managed by it.
But this soon became a problem.
One salesperson who was particularly good at his job (which meant he was constantly following up with people), was relentless about pushing my designer to get his sales designs done ASAP. No matter how long she said she’d need.
In reaction, I told the sales team that they could no longer go to the designer with their requests. They should come to me instead, so I could set timing expectations and she could get her work done.
Immediately, the sales team members who’d been used to quick turnaround started complaining to me about how slow the new process was. They started complaining around the office about how I was creating needless silos in the company.
Morale and trust between the Marketing and Sales teams sunk. My designer was still overworked. Only now she felt responsible for all this unhappiness on the team.
A small mess had turned into a big mess.
The reason for all of it? My team had a boundaries problem.
And it was my fault.
What Are Healthy Teamwork Boundaries?
In relationships, having healthy personal boundaries means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while not taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others. It means understanding that adults can handle you not taking their burdens on yourself—and you can still be a good person if you say no.
As the guy who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck put it:
“People with strong boundaries understand that it's unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 percent and fulfill every need the other has. People with strong boundaries understand that a healthy relationship is not about controlling one another's emotions, but rather about each partner supporting the other in their individual growth and in solving their own problems.”
At work, having healthy boundaries means taking responsibility for your own work and results—and working in a way that helps others to solve their own problems, instead of taking responsibility for them yourself.
But this can be a difficult line to walk when the power dynamic isn’t in your favor.
A romantic relationship is ideally a partnership where both parties have power. But if you’re a junior partner, someone’s direct report—or you just need this job—being clear (and firm) about your needs is a lot harder.
This does not have to be at odds with being helpful (being a “giver” as Adam Grant puts it). What it means is taking a big-picture view—rather than taking the easy way out—when someone wants something from you.
It just means setting yourself up so you can put your mask on first.
Ultimately, the point of your work is to help your team succeed. But if you don’t get your work done and you don’t hold yourself responsible for your results, then your team WILL suffer.
A good team member will take responsibility for their team’s work and results—especially if they’re in a position of leadership. And framing your responsibilities in this way is exactly the first step to working with people who don’t respect your boundaries. More on that in a moment.
Boundaries lead to confidence, emotional stability, and reduced anxiety—because they give you a sense of control. Psychology research is clear that one of the fastest routes to depression is when you’re responsible for something that you don’t have control over.
What Unhealthy Boundaries At Work Look Like
Has it ever felt like all you do at work is respond to people's messages all day long? Do you ever seem to be at the mercy of other people’s work needs over your own?
Or on the flip side, do you seem to have to “save” your teammates and fix their problems all the time?
Does it ever seem like people take advantage of that?
Even worse: Are you on the hook for things that you can’t control?
If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” then you know how frustrating and unproductive a lack of boundaries can be.
The problem with boundaries issues at work is they feed a vicious cycle.
Having poor boundaries often means you’re responsive to other people’s needs and expectations at the expense of your own. This leads to a loss of control over your own work and results, which is not only depressing, but it leads to even worse control over your boundaries. And that not only leads to more abuse of your boundaries, but also increases people’s expectations that you will be available on-demand for them no matter the cost to you.
The good news is it’s possible to stop this—and with relatively little pain. Setting the right kinds of work boundaries can actually increase productivity, alleviate stress, and actually turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
Even better news: Going remote gives us the chance to set some boundaries that might be harder to just set out of nowhere at the office. So if you’re working from home right now and trying to figure out how to optimize your teamwork, now is a great opportunity to try the below:
Work Boundaries Step 1: Understand the Difference Between Boundaries and Barriers
The line that divides my home state of Idaho from the state of Wyoming looks like this:
It’s an imaginary line. But it separates things in a healthy way. Cops on one side of the line know where they are responsible for serving and protecting people. Officials on the other side know where they are responsible for the same.
The line that divided Berlin into two sections during the Cold War, on the other hand, looked like this:
This isn’t a boundary. It’s a Barrier.
The key difference between a Boundary and a Barrier, is a Barrier cuts off communication. It cuts off negotiation. It makes it clear that you are not on the same team.
On the other hand, people can stand on their own side of a Boundary and have a conversation. They can shake hands over the line. Or even offer to come over the line to help in a pinch. Each party takes responsibility for what’s on their side of the Boundary, and they respect the line. But it’s in the service of working together, not avoiding each other.
Work Boundaries Step 2: Figure Out How You Work Best
Boundaries ultimately are about helping you to get the work you need to done. You can’t set effective boundaries with others if you can’t articulate the best way to work yourself.
So step back and identify the following:
What’s the most important work you are responsible for?
What challenges are you up against? What is most likely to get in the way of you doing your best work?
What information do you need in order to do your best work?
When do you need uninterrupted time in order to do your best work? When is it most disruptive to be interrupted?
What’s your optimal work style? When do you do your clearest thinking? When are you best able to get into a flow?
This free Work Style Report Tool can walk you through all the little things that can help you get clear on your optimal work style.
One of the most useful, concrete things this tool can help you with is to think through the optimal ways to communicate with you. An incredibly effective type of boundary to set is the expectation for when you will respond to inbound communication.
If you’re bombarded all day long with requests and questions, this will be especially helpful to decide the following:
What’s the best way for people to communicate things that you prefer to get to on your own schedule? I.e. what communication channel can you commit to checking and responding to a couple times a day (or less) when you have time to think about them?
What’s the best way for people to ask quick things of you? I.e. what’s the best way to get a hold of you for asynchronous conversations and questions?
What’s the right way for people to get a hold of you in an emergency? I.e. if something truly merits interrupting you, should people call you? Should they text you with URGENT, etc.?
Is it okay for someone to spring a real-time conversation on you? Or do you prefer for non-emergency conversations to be scheduled or come with prior warning? (For most people, the answer should be the latter!)
Once you are clear on this—but before you try to establish these boundaries with anyone—you’re going to want to learn the same kinds of things about your teammates...
Work Boundaries Step 3: Put Yourself In Your Teammates' Shoes, and Figure Out What They Need To Succeed
Seeking to understand what your teammates are up against doesnt just help you learn how to deal with them. It also lets them know that you care. This will make it easier for them to understand when you let them know where your optimal work boundaries are.
It pays to personally ask the people you work with:
What’s the most important work you are responsible for?
What challenges are you up against?
What information do you need in order to do your best work?
What are the best communication channels for you?
When do you do your clearest thinking? When are you best able to get into a flow?
Only after you’ve shown your teammates that you truly want to understand them, then you can proceed to setting up some boundaries.
Work Boundaries Step 4: Communicate Your Boundaries In Terms Of Agreements For The Greater Good
Setting boundaries is about making clear what you agree to be responsible for, and what you expect of others in order to do so.
The principle is this:
If you're going to take responsibility for your work—and its contribution to the greater good—then you need to be in control of the terms of your work.
When you communicate your boundaries with people, it’s helpful to frame them in terms of your desire for the greater good—the team’s overall success. It’s easier for colleagues to hear the word “no” when it’s framed by the big picture for the team.
And it’s best to set boundaries as "If>Then agreements." In other words, boundaries are what you promise to do if the other party agrees to what you ask. E.g.:
If you promise to only call me without warning if it’s an emergency, then I promise to always pick up. Unless I’m dealing with another emergency, in which case I will call you back immediately.
If you see that my status on Slack is set to “do not disturb,” it means I’m heads down working on something important. So if you send me a chat message, I promise I will pop in and get back to you within a couple of hours.
If you get me your first draft on Tuesday, I promise I’ll get you feedback by Friday at 9am.
Now, if you want to be bold, you can actually say, “These are my boundaries.” But that can be awkward, and may sound too forceful or even defensive. A better way to do it is to have a conversation where you let people know a few things:
Once you’ve established the best way to work with you—so that you can truly be responsible for your work and results—you’re going to need to be consistent about sticking to it. Otherwise, the boundaries mean nothing.
For example, say you’ve set the boundary of “no unannounced calls unless it’s an emergency.” When your colleague calls about something that’s not an emergency, you must remind them of the boundary then and there. You’re working on something important, and they should send you a message to schedule time to talk since it’s not an emergency.
This may seem scary at first. But if you frame things in terms of the greater good, it will be nigh impossible to argue with you about these boundaries. Even a boss will respect that. Especially a good boss.
Work Boundaries Step 5: Caring Means You "Give" Based On Long-Term Benefit, Not Short-Term Fear
Social psychology research shows that “givers” in the workplace end up at both the top and the bottom of the food chain. Why? Because some people “give” to their colleagues in the short-term at the expense of the long-term. Successful givers are helpful in ways that contribute maximally in the long run.
One of the biggest ways we fall prey to short-term thinking when it comes to helping others? Fear. Fear of disappointing people. Fear of seeming selfish. Fear that the other person will fail if we don't save them. And so on.
But if you’re afraid of the consequences of not giving someone what they want RIGHT NOW, then you’ll be more likely to cave on your healthy boundaries. You'll cave to that pushy person, or that charming or persuasive colleague—or that person whose position of power makes everything they do feel urgent.
Fear makes us more likely to avoid pain now, rather than optimize for the long-term benefit. But that's the path to boundary-less misery.
So, if you want to be helpful and maintain your healthy boundaries, continually ask this question:
What action will help the whole team out the most in the long run?
Asking this question will help reduce the fear of short-term pain, which will help you reinforce your healthy boundaries.
What About People Who Don’t Respect Your Boundaries?
In the story about my graphic designer at the start of this post, I made a bigger mess by attempting to set some boundaries and failing. I didn’t do a good job initially, because I set up Barriers instead of boundaries. I tried to push the sales team away instead of figuring out how to help the team get its best work done.
The sales team didn't respect my boundary, poor as it was. They were used to getting their needs met. I had not given them a good enough reason to change their behavior.
When that didn’t work, I went back to the drawing board. Why were the sales team bothering my poor designer so much? It was because her work was super helpful to them, and because they’d grown to expect custom work as part of how they could make sales. And why was my designer bothered by that? In part, because she didn’t know whether the salespeople’s requests were more important than my marketing requests. All she saw was increasing responsibility and decreasing control.
The solution began with sitting down with the designer and walking her through how our salespeople’s commissions worked. I helped her understand what their day to day job was like, and how her work affected how they put food on the table. This helped her to not only have more empathy for the formerly “pesky” salespeople, but also to come up with some ideas for how to scale design solutions, so they could have their needs met without her doing so much custom work. Instead of just taking orders, she became a partner in their success.
I then sat down with the salesperson who was the biggest problem, and walked him through what my designer was up against. We talked about the effect that all the interruptions and “urgent” requests were going to have on marketing leads down the line. These were leads that the sales team needed in order to do their own work. He became an advocate for the designer among the sales team—reminding them that the less urgent problems they threw on her plate, the more leads marketing could generate for them.
After a little empathy building, the team had more intrinsic motivation to make and respect boundaries. Establishing the big picture for what the team needed for its success became a starting point for boundaries agreements. We figured out what the salespeople needed to do if they needed something urgently, or non-urgently. We set expectations for what the designer would do if the sales team held up their end.
And we agreed that if either party couldn't keep up the agreement, then we would be sitting down again to figure out a new agreement until we got things right.
And you’ll never guess, but everyone felt much better.