Are Coworkers Crossing the Line? Check Your Boundaries.

Bosses have employee issues. Employees have boss issues. Coworkers have peer issues. Isn’t working together supposed to be easy? 

We often set ourselves up for the people problems we face. When we fail to set boundaries that keep out unwanted coworker behaviors, we pay a price. 

Ominous signs 

People problems generally sneak up on us. One day we realize we’re caught in a cycle we don’t like—one that’s interfering with our work. 

Typically, here’s what takes place: 

Unsolicited confiding: A coworker or employee shares a personal problem, a bit of gossip, a critical opinion, or a confidence. By listening and engaging in the conversation, we open a channel for more in the future that we really don’t want.

Uncontrolled access: The concept of the “open door” policy for bosses and willingness to “drop everything” to help a coworker sounds nice but is often counterproductive. Once we allow anyone to interrupt us anytime, we reward poor planning and devalue our own time.

Unwanted associations: We become friendly with a colleague who makes a great first impression. Later, we discover that s/he has a poor work history, a tendency to let us pull part of his/her weight, and is not well thought of. We need to create some distance.

Unanticipated involvement: We encounter coworkers and bosses who have strong views about what should and shouldn’t be taking place at work. Their perspectives have some logic on the surface but may be steeped in old resentments and personal interests. We’re asked or expected to “get on board” with them and support the “cause.” In time we discover that we don’t support their views and need to decouple. 

Making the break 

Experience is the best teacher for boundary setting. Once you realize you’re in a place you don’t want to be with coworkers, that’s the time to examine the boundaries you 1.) set and broke or 2.) never set in the first place. 

A workplace boundary establishes what you will and won’t allow. It says to your coworkers, “This is off limits,” “This is something I don’t do,” and “This is what I live by.” 

The time will come when you will need to (re)establish a boundary with someone who has crossed it. That’s not easy, but letting things go only make conditions worse. 

Here are some conversations that you might initiate designed to (re)set boundaries: 

Gossiping: “Several weeks ago, you told me about Joe’s marital problems and speculation about his involvement with his IT specialist. At first I got caught up in the details. Then I realized that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I’ve decided to stay away from office gossip. It’s not what I want to do.”

Interruptions: “As much as I believe in being helpful and supportive, I’ve come to realize that constant interruptions are negatively affecting my ability to lead/perform well. Too often, I’m asked for answers because it’s easier than looking them up and learning them. So, I will set aside a specific hour each day when you are welcomed to bring your ideas and questions.”

Professionalism: “I’ve been concerned about the lack of courtesy at our meetings. In the past ,whether I was leading the meeting or simply participating, I too spoke out without being recognized, made sidebar remarks, and was focused on my BlackBerry instead of listening. From now on, I will stop that behavior and will request the same from my colleagues.”

Performance: “I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten sloppy about report deadlines because I can’t get the data I need from you (a coworker or colleague in another department). This seems to be a pattern throughout the organization, but it doesn’t do either of us any good to be seen in that negative light. Shall we commit to supporting each other so we can build a reputation of being on time?” 

Boundaries build your brand.  

Boundaries define who you are at work. They are the rules you set, making it easier for others to work with you. 

Without boundaries, we allow others to impose themselves on our daily work and impact our careers. With them, we regain control. 

Photo from kevindooley via Flickr


Don’t Get Too Big for Your “Bossypants.” Tina Fey Says So.

It happens. One day you wake up and you’re the boss. Suddenly, all the pieces came together and you’re in charge whether you prepared for the moment or not.                     

This happened, in a fashion, to Tina Fey, comedy writer and comedienne, known for her work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. As a woman in comedy, she faced unique career obstacles, particularly from some male comics who were commited to the notion that “women aren’t funny.”  She’s clearly debunked that. 

In her book, Bossypants, Fey writes about her family dynamics and career path, sharing her often tongue-in-cheek discoveries about what it takes to be the boss—actually a good boss. 

Do you have what it takes? 

Overcoming preconceived notions is often a boss’s toughest assignment.   

Fey writes: “…ever since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, ‘Is it hard for you, being the boss?’ and ‘Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?’ You know, in the same way they say, ‘Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?’ I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not.” 

It’s one thing to be confident and another to be arrogant when you’re the boss. 

Fey adds, “Contrary to what I believed as a little, girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, ‘I am the boss! I am the boss!’”  

There are plenty of bosses out there all puffed up about their importance, power, and authority. They’re wearing the bossypants we’d like to set on fire. 

Good bosses focus their attention on what it takes to help employees do their jobs well with the least amount of hassle, and not about their royal boss-ness. 

It’s about the cast. 

In many ways, employees are the boss’s supporting cast. Without them nothing gets done.  

According to Fey, “In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.”

 Hiring is the most important task for any boss. Good hires build cohesive teams, ensure quality performance, and develop a bench. 

When bosses hire well, they make their lives easier, but only if they know how to lead, delegate, and provide feedback. When their bossypants are too tight, bosses micro-manage, interfere, and criticize. 

Hence Fey’s “Bossypants Lesson #183: You Can’t Boss People Around If They Don’t Really Care.” 

Seeing the real picture 

Things are not always what they‘re said to be in any career and that was certainly true for Fey. She writes in Bossypants: 

“This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are gong to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go with a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.” 

That’s career revelation number one. Then she writes: 

“When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism … ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way….

 If the answer is yes…Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.” 

You are your own boss, whether you admit it to yourself or not. You own the job you do for your employer for as long as you have it. 

Make your bossypants fit you. 

Your life is your business, making you a full-fledged entrepreneur, controlling all the choices that impact your life. You might also be the boss by position in your organization. 

If you’re wearing bossypants that are too big or too small, you may need to make a switch.  Finding the right fit can make a big difference.

Photo from George Arriola via Flickr

When the Boss Is Out to Lunch, Share a Dish of Calamity.


Bosses are supposed to avert workplace calamity not cause it by being indecisive, indifferent, or disinterested!

Too many bosses insulate themselves from the real work their employees do, believing that it’s somehow not relevant to their job. They would be wildly wrong.

The price of neglect 

There’s nothing pretty about arms-length leadership. It frustrates employees and leads to problems. Employees pay up front and the bosses later, if at all.

I saw this firsthand when I spent a day in the field with Ed, an electric utility company serviceman in my department. At the time I was the new director of customer service where overdue accounts receivable were through the roof. I was supposed to fix that. “Really?” I thought.

For starters, the company needed to terminate electric service for accounts seriously in arrears, particularly businesses, in accordance with regulatory and fairness standards.

Part of Ed’s job was to collect or cut service, and I needed to see how the process worked. That day we had a cut order for an Italian restaurant that had defaulted on its payment arrangements several times.

We arrived to discover the owner was not there, even though he knew we were coming. It was about an hour before the lunch crowd was expected, so employees were scurrying to get things set up.

We told the restaurant supervisor what we were there to do. Once the employees heard, they started pulling out all the stops to get prepared.

To locate the meter, Ed and I had to walk through the kitchen past pots of marinara sauce and down a rickety staircase into a dark cellar divided into eight storage cages. That made me pretty nervous!

When Ed had found the meter, he yelled upstairs, “Are…you…ready?”

“Wait,” someone yelled, “we have to get the fish back into the freezer.”

A couple minutes passed before we got their okay, and everything went black.

We followed our flashlight back upstairs to find employees still doing what they could to protect the food and figure out how to handle things over lunch.

The supervisor knew we needed a check from the owner to restore service. He was making frantic phone calls trying to reach him. We explained that we’d be back early afternoon and hopefully he’d have a check for us.

When we returned, the owner still hadn’t been reached. The supervisor handed us a signed check for $500.00 made out to Sal’s Seafood. He’d crossed out the fish store’s name and wrote in the electric company’s. I really felt for him, but that wouldn’t fly.

It’s about being there. 

When that restaurant owner heard this story, he likely shrugged it off, making the utility company the bad guy. He wouldn’t be able to relate to how stricken his employees felt when the lights went out. He won’t have heard the complaints from his customers or seen them leave.

He might, in fact, have blamed his supervisor for being unable to talk us out of cutting the power. He probably wouldn’t praise his staff for saving his food inventory or finding a way to appease his customers.

When leaders aren’t in the thick of things, seeing them firsthand and internalizing their impacts, they never really get it. For proof of that, one episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss should be enough.

Frontline employees are the business.

The people who do the work are the business. Executives and managers direct. First-line supervisors and frontline employees deliver. When things go wrong, they’re the ones that execute the fix.

Arms-length leaders and owners are a liability to their companies. They drive employees out, discourage engagement, and compromise the health of the business.

Every owner and manager needs to get out from behind his/her desk and spend time with employees, seeing what they’re seeing, understanding what they’re doing, and finding ways to remove obstacles.

How about scheduling a day a month with one or two of your employees starting now? Or invite your boss to see what you do? You’ll never regret it!

Has there been an arms-length boss in your work life? I’m all ears!


From Boss Basher to Being the Boss: How’s That Workin’ Out? | Supervision Unveiled

We all do it to some degree. We watch our supervisors and wonder, “What the heck do they do all day?”

They’re always on the phone or going to meetings. They walk around carrying papers or peering at their Blackberries. Sometimes they might stop and talk to us about something we’re doing or not doing. Whatever!

So we say, “Hey, I could do that job and way better.”


Consider this: All supervisors think they must know how to supervise. After all, a manager (who is a bigger supervisor) picked them for the job. Ergo, they must have the skills to supervise successfully.

A lot of supervisors start out as workers in the departments they eventually supervise. They know how the prior boss did things and they know their employees who were once coworkers. To be a good supervisor, they just need to stop doing what the prior boss did that no one liked. Right?

Well, not exactly. Something mysterious happens once a former coworker becomes the supervisor. In time, s/he becomes a lot like the old boss, maybe a little better or even a little worse, but surely similar. Before too long, we hear ourselves bashing him/her too. 

Time out!

There’s reason to be empathetic toward supervisors who discover that they really don’t understand what their job is. They are shocked when they realize that, at the end of the day, they produce no concrete outputs.

The notion of having a job where your success is measured by the work your employees complete is difficult to get your head around. Many supervisors can’t!

Can you do this? 

Imagine you’re a new supervisor, committed to being the kind of boss your work group has been longing for. Here’s what you’ll be doing to make sure the work assigned to your group gets done on time, on spec, within budget, and without flaws:

  • Dealing with employees and others (addressing needs, problems, issues, and expectations)
  • Setting goals and holding employees accountable
  • Planning and scheduling work
  • Tracking progress and making mid-course corrections
  • Making decisions on the spot to solve problems
  • Being accountable to your own boss (a manager who may be no picnic!)
  • Submitting reports on time
  • Completing performance appraisals and assigning raises
  • Hiring and firing (You’ll get flak for that!)
  • Changing the way work is done to increase efficiencies 

That’s the easy stuff. Then there’s this:

  • Supporting upper management decisions you don’t agree with
  • Defending your work group when facing unjustified criticism
  • Building and/or mending relationships with supervisors/managers at odds with you
  • Intervening when employees break the rules (substance abuse, theft, violence)
  • Communicating new and often unpopular policies
  • Building a cohesive team who will respect and follow you 

That’s quite a hefty weight to bear. Not everyone has the strength or the acumen.

The way it goes! 

Tolerance for ambiguity, patience, complex problem solving, good communication skills, and an awareness of how people perceive things are essential supervisory capabilities.

When you see your supervisor walking around with those papers, nose in the Blackberry, attending meetings, and talking to coworkers, the matters at hand are often quite complex and not for public consumption. It’s not as simple as we’d like to think!

In all fairness…. 

I have huge respect for good supervisors. And I have low regard for managers who hire people unprepared for the role. That hurts everyone.

Any job that includes the privilege of directing others is a leadership job in my view. Achieving business fitness is our commitment to developing the capabilities needed to be a good boss when given the opportunity. We desperately need better bosses at every level. We could use you if you’re up for it!

Have you ever verbally bashed a supervisor? Do you still feel justified? What should s/he have done better? Thanks for the insight!


Bosses Who Don’t Get It | Taking Issue

Bad bosses are water cooler fodder. One story begets another until those bosses become mythic, the Cyclopes of the work place. Oh, what we’d give for a chance to poke that lonely eye! 

To be boss and not to boss: That is the issue.  

Ah, there really is something in a name. When you’re a supervisor, you are the boss. That means you’re expected to make decisions and exercise authority which includes “giving orders” and controlling things. Webster says so.

 Bosses who don’t “get it” believe that employees can’t or won’t get the work done right unless the boss controls things by: 

  • Checking and double-checking the work
  • Questioning every decision and process step
  • Criticizing and/or blocking individual initiative
  • Withholding praise or acknowledgement of good work
  • Catching and broadcasting errors
  • Blaming unforeseen issues on others
  • Distrusting progress reports and questioning competency
  • Finding a way to always be right and making others wrong 

I’ve had a few bad bosses and they really irked me. But one turned me into a banshee. Here’s how he treated me: 

  • While I was proposing a program initiative, he’s lean back in his chair, hands behind his head, and smirk at me. Then he’d send me off with no direction. 
  • He would question every detail of my written proposals that he had barely scanned. Result: Deferred action. 
  • His answer was “no” to every documented request to reward the good performance of my employees. 
  • Most of his comments to me were made to my chest. He must have thought I was wearing amplifiers!  

I wasn’t his only irate direct report. There were men too. (They didn’t have amps of interest, however.) He’d direct them to change calculations to make data look better, block their initiatives, and steal the spotlight. In time his “bad boss” brand did him in. 

Smart bosses don’t boss. They build. 

Recently, I got a surprise Facebook message from a woman who’d worked for me 15 years ago, now retired. Her note said, “You were the BEST boss I ever had,” then proceeded to say why. 

As a boss I always thought about myself more as a teacher. That note made me think about praise I’d gotten from other employees along the way. This is what happened with a few: 

1.) A talented, high energy woman, newly added to my staff, took no prisoners when it came to getting work done. This had been her style for a decade and as a result she’d “put off” a lot of people. I laid this out to her and the effect it was having on her career. She spent most of that meeting sobbing. We ended with a “fix it” strategy and my commitment mentor her. It worked. 

2.) I hired a woman, fresh out of college, to take full responsibility for outfitting and driving a mobile marketing exhibit throughout a 10,000 square mile region. It was a 32 foot trailer connected to a one ton pick up. There were plenty of doubters but not me. I gave her resources, support, and confidence. She turned those naysayers into admirers. 

3.) A 19-year-old girl joined my work group as a temporary steno. She was bright and spunky with no direction for her life. She was very close to making career moves that would put her in a black hole. I talked to her at length about her interests and, in time, she enrolled in college. She’s now a CPA and senior manager in a Fortune 500.

 Good bosses make people better. That’s what makes businesses thrive. 

When we’re the boss, our employees are our customers. Our job is to serve them. That means providing clear direction, development for growth, and support so they can make decisions with confidence. 

Business fitness comes from attracting a following, people who hold you in esteem for what you can do and the standards you uphold. The good boss builds a contingent of followers that make the right things happen. Be good! 

Have you worked for a “bad boss” who has left a lasting impression? What was his/her “fatal flaw?” What did you do to cope?