“The word boundaries is scary,” mused the executive consultant sitting next to me. “Perhaps there’s a less emotional word you can use.” We were chatting about how best to frame the workshop that I had developed for women in masculine professional environments. Sitting there, on the coast of a peaceful wind-swept Greek island, that word  still managed to register a subtle blip of discomfort.

Answers vary…

Comments on appearance. Questions about marital status. Inquiries regarding the bearing of children, or lack thereof. Being requested to take the notes. Cursing. Being asked to cover weekends for your coworkers with families. Wearing leggings to the gym… Based on who you ask, you will get varying answers about which of these are appropriate for the workplace and which are not. This ambiguity is where the meaty conversation around boundaries begins.

Merriam Webster makes a boundary sound pretty benign: “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.”

So why on earth does the mere mention of this delineating word stress us out? And why would we, at Two Piers Consulting, deem this to be a topic worthy of a full-day workshop?

Simply put, it’s because setting and asserting boundaries can be incredibly challenging, and can also hugely impact your effectiveness in the workplace, particularly for those of us offshore.

When we think about boundaries, we tend to conjure images of stressful confrontation, hurt feelings, or just plain awkwardness and discomfort. Perhaps that sneaky fear of being disliked begins to creep in. Ironically, setting and asserting boundaries helps us to avert those exact circumstances.

‘Most of us work with equipment that has defined operating limits or boundaries.’

Most of us work with equipment that has defined operating limits or boundaries. We expect these to be provided by manufacturers or through engineering calculations. They are based on the safe operating limits for the equipment. Violating an operating limit can result in system instability, fatigue, or even catastrophic failure. (Sound familiar?) Boundaries are important because it gives us a framework for how others can and should interact with us, almost like a mini operating procedure.

What do we see as the key factors for managing boundaries?

  • Figure out what they are! We often think we know what our own theoretical boundaries will be until they are tested and we realize from empirical evidence, (possibly in the form of a queasy feeling, or perhaps anger or frustration), that our actual boundaries were slightly different than we’d thought. You know that icky feeling you get when someone does or says something that doesn’t sit right, yet you can’t quite figure out why you’re bothered? Chances are, there was an intrinsic boundary that was crossed, perhaps one that you didn’t know you had. Our comfort levels can change over time, so it’s worth doing a sense check here and there to make sure you maintain self-awareness regarding your own boundaries.
  • Communicate Communicate Communicate. In the workplace, we use signs, barriers, notifications and procedures to communicate boundaries and safe zones. We rope off and label areas that are not to be crossed. These controls help us operate safely and effectively. We would not assume that two different types of pumps have the same operating limits, for example a centrifugal pump and a positive displacement pump, and yet people sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that unique individuals have the same boundaries, especially if we lump all women together. Similarly, we can sometimes assume that our personal boundaries are obvious and will sometimes feel betrayed or threatened when one gets crossed, despite us never having communicated them. Not communicating your boundaries is like putting up an electric fence: people only discover where a boundary is once it’s been painfully crossed, and they, (or you), will likely steer clear rather than take the risk of getting shocked again. During our workshops, we go through an exercise to demonstrate just how much variance there can be within a small group of women. There are always some surprised faces in the room when people discover what others are and are not ok with. The easiest way to avoid this? Proactively communicate your boundaries.
  • Put them into action! We can set a boundary, but what happens if it gets tested or crossed? We will have to assert, or even reassert a boundary. In these cases, intent matters. Did the person forget or misunderstand? Perhaps they need to be reminded. Did they intend to test you or convey a lack of respect by intentionally ignoring your boundary? If that’s the case, then it should be called what it is. “I set a boundary here. This is my expectation.”
  • Escalate it. If you have a boundary that continues to be crossed, and you’ve been clear about your expectations, then it’s time to escalate. Keep some notes with dates, times, people and context. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to realize that you’re keeping track. Other times, escalation truly is necessary, and if you’ve kept notes, then you will be presenting a record of events, rather than feelings or emotions, (which, for better or worse, are sometimes at risk for being delegitimized).

Pro-tip: When it comes to communicating and asserting your boundaries, own those boundaries without shame, guilt or apology. We all accept that Billy goes to the gym at 11am every other day, or that Joe doesn’t appreciate cursing because they’ve set those boundaries with confidence they stick to them because it’s important to them. If Billy or Joe apologized for those boundaries, or excused themselves for being difficult, then it would probably change how we subconsciously viewed it. If you’re setting a boundary that is true to yourself and within your workplace policy, then there should be no shame in communicating or enforcing it. With that said, we are not asserting that anything goes. If your boundaries are incompatible with your workplace or team, then at least it’s out in the open to discuss and determine if it’s the right fit. I’m pretty sure a few of us would love to set a boundary of waking up at 9am, but that’s just not going to fly on most boats. Conversely, if my workplace explicitly permits behavior that I deem disrespectful, then perhaps that workplace is not a healthy fit for me.

Do you have examples of successfully communicating and asserting your boundaries? If so, tell us about it in the comments section.

Next up, we’ll discuss examples of boundaries being crossed, and some potential tactics for responding…