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Five ways to set and maintain boundaries at work

It has never been harder to divide work and home life. The use of technology, combined with the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, means that we can work from anywhere, at any time, if we choose to. This is particularly significant where we have clients and stakeholders who have expectations of immediate service. Increasingly, lawyers are struggling to manage feelings of “always being on”. This post discusses how establishing boundaries can help to combat feelings of being overwhelmed.

What are boundaries?

At their most basic, boundaries mark the limit of an area. In a psychological sense, they are used as a metaphor to indicate that what is “in boundary” is acceptable and what is outside the boundary is unacceptable. Boundaries describe how we delineate personal space, be it physical, psychological or in any other sense. The benefits of understanding and respecting boundaries are clear, and include better protection of mental health, lower stress and better leadership.

Five steps to help set and maintain boundaries

Provide clarity on what they are on an individual level

The most important part about boundaries is that they belong to the individual and therefore only you can work out what they are. The first part of getting clarity in this area is self-reflection. What are the values that remain true, irrespective of where or how work happens? Perhaps “putting family first” is a boundary or “client service at any cost”. One indicator of boundaries is to interrogate your past experiences of hurt, frustration or anger. What was going on? Was there a boundary that someone crossed that led to that feeling?

Work out how to communicate them

Once there is clarity, the next question is how boundaries are shared with others. This will require being clear, consistent, firm and unambiguous. We recently coached a lawyer who felt that while she understood her boundaries around time, they couldn’t be maintained. She wanted to have weekends free from work, something that had been unachievable for many months.

As a way of addressing this, she tried experimenting with a hard stop for the week on Fridays, sharing this with her team and, in time, clients. By being clear and unambiguous, and making sure that the impact of this wasn’t felt by others, it was an easy “sell”, which benefited her and the team. The process wasn’t easy, but having the courage to communicate the boundary was enough to allow others to support her in maintaining it.

Work out how important they are

It is easy to see boundaries as a dichotomy between what is in and what is out. But to do that is to lose the nuance. Different boundaries will have different relevance at different times, depending on a multitude of factors. For example, perhaps there is a project to deliver that will impact your promotion prospects. In that case, longer hours than normal make sense. Healthy boundaries are usually porous rather than rigid and are reliant on an understanding of the need for flexibility.

Defend them

Once clarity exists, boundaries require prioritisation. Depending on the situation, you may need to be assertive in defending them. This might mean challenging others when they transgress a boundary, or challenging them when you see them trampling over someone else’s boundaries.

This can be hard. We have coached legal professionals who repeatedly struggle to articulate and defend their boundaries. Often this is because they have a strong desire to be of service and to do their best work, whatever the cost. Be reassured that there is no need to be perfect from the outset and behaviour can continually be refined as time passes.

Review and reassess the process

Boundaries are not set in stone. Instead they are constantly evolving according to circumstances, role, organisation and many other factors. This means that revisiting individual values and how to bring them to life is an ongoing career task. Getting this right will have important implications for your work satisfaction and ultimately your career success.

What are the considerations for leaders?

Leaders need to be mindful of situations where one person’s boundaries intersect with other people’s boundaries. Creating the conditions for people to feel safe to share their boundaries is important, but so is honouring what they share, and showing that the leader takes their boundaries seriously. Leaders need to think about what boundaries people are trying to communicate and what could be done to make this process easier.

Boundaries are a critical part of creating a healthy, functioning relationship with work. Being intentional about them by reflecting and then communicating them is time well spent. So, are you clear about your own boundaries?

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