Trouble Setting Boundaries at Work? Ask Madeleine

Woman Under Caution TapeDear Madeleine,

I have a lot of friends at work and we have a lot of fun. I am an easy going person and like to joke around, but I was recently promoted to manager and now there’s a problem. 

One person on my team assumes he can take breaks whenever he wants without asking. It feels like things are getting out of hand. How do I put a stop to this without making him hate me?  –Getting Serious

Dear Getting Serious,

As a very informal person myself, I really can sympathize with your dilemma.  Although you definitely had a hand in creating this situation, it is also true that you are being taken advantage of.

The first thing we need to do is take a hard look at what got you into this pickle: your need to be liked. Many lovely, friendly, delightful people have this need.  It is a trait that has made you a lot of friends—but if you don’t get a grip on it, it will keep you from being a successful manager.  Ultimately, your need to be liked will have to be fulfilled outside of work hours.  Now let’s work on setting clear boundaries.

Boundaries set limits.  The military calls them no fly zones—and they mean keep out! Well defined and maintained boundaries work in exactly the same way.

Start by noticing when you choose to say yes instead of no, even when you don’t want to or don’t think it is appropriate.  Also be aware of times when something happens that is out of bounds and you choose to stay quiet.

You might feel that setting and enforcing boundaries is presumptuous or pushy. After all, “Who do you think you are?” Who hasn’t felt the sting of that question? It is designed to make you wonder, Who do I think I am? Who am I to say no? Who am I to impose my will on others? In other words, Who am I to claim rights and set boundaries? For you the answer is: “I am the manager. And my job is to draw the line, gently but firmly.”

Practice exactly how you will draw the line with this employee.  Try out language and find a brief, clear way to say what needs to be said.

“Joe, it’s really important to check with me about breaks and clock in and out so the floor continues to work smoothly.”

A Strange Phenomenon

With all of this being said about setting boundaries, there is a strange phenomenon that I’ve noticed. Once you’re clear on what the boundary is, you’ve practiced what you’re going to say, and you’re ready to take the plunge and draw that line, you may not need to say anything at all.  There is a transfer of energy, psychic signaling, or some other indefinable magic that often occurs when the initial preparation is done.

Suddenly the person with whom the boundary needs to be set simply stops the offending behavior.

I don’t know why this happens, but I’ve seen it time and again. A client is frustrated and upset about a specific person’s behavior.  They work to identify, articulate, and role-play boundary setting, finally committing to a time and place for a conversation with the offending party. But the very next day the person in question approaches the manager with an apology or a promise never to do the behavior again, or just stops the behavior—giving the manager no opportunity or need to say anything.

Is this just a coincidence? I don’t think so. It is said that dogs can smell fear and, in my experience, people can smell a pushover. If you know what the boundaries are and are ready to set them, there is a good chance people will sense it—and toe the line.


About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Trouble Setting Boundaries at Work? Ask Madeleine

  1. it’s nice one, Mam. As expected from the expert one.

    If I may say something about the answer, though, I’d like to suggest the other reason of the “strange phenomenon” that you mention above. I’d like to think that the reason of “why suddenly the offending one come and apologizing for his/her behavior while we’ve decided the boundaries and practiced everything” is because when we did realizing the boundaries,holding on that firmly, and tried to practice everything, our attitude-behavior toward it, “unconsciously” began to change too. maybe we looks more confident or easily to angry or such. normal people can see that (observation) and when the sudden (but-unconcious) change of our behavior didn’t have any explicit explanation…that’s where human’s brain do amazingly process of thinking….

    well, that’s my personal experience. based on what happen in real life, although most of the cases is not happend at organization’s area. and sorry for bad grammar.

    thank you.

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