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


The Impersonal Workplace Is About You | Making It Different

It’s no secret: The business world can be cold. The greater the competition, the higher the stress, and the tighter the budgets, the more we feel it. Job demands expand, the pace increases, and the time for building relationships shrinks. At least, that’s how it seems.

How much do you care?  

High workloads get us to hunker down, tune out distractions, and grind out our work. The job gets to be all about us when the pressure’s on. We tend to block out our coworkers, customers, and sometimes even the boss when the heat’s on.

Work can either separate us or bring us together. It’s our choice.

A lot of negative things can happen when we let the work consume us. We often:

  • Find fault with coworkers and criticize their contributions
  • Dismiss questions and keep people at arm’s length
  • Become impatient with indecision by the boss, coworkers, and customers
  • Treat complaints as interruptions rather than insights
  • Act rudely or miss opportunities to provide great service
  • Neglect the needs of others who rely on us 

There are plenty of companies with policies and practices that don’t make their employees feel valued. But that isn’t the majority.

We’re the ones who humanize our workplace. The way we treat the people in our paths every day creates the work environment.

I know that you’ve met people at work who always:

  • Have a smile
  • Find something upbeat to say
  • Perform an unexpected act of kindness
  • Pitch in when you’re struggling
  • Laugh at their own mistakes 

They act this way with everyone. You and I can and should do this too. Think of the difference that we’d make. Then imagine how it would be if everyone around us did that too!

So, what about our coworkers? 

Most everyone we work with lives a life with burdens. Few of us are immune. Some bear heavier challenges than we do; some less. Some carry their burdens more easily than others. But all of us, at some time, need a lift!

That means we are never without an opportunity to lighten someone’s load. I don’t mean engaging in protracted conversations or becoming a confidant. That’s not appropriate at work.

Instead, it’s about taking a moment to acknowledge a need or to express support. Most of the time, all we need is to be noticed, valued, and validated. It’s simply about kindness!

A lot of good feeling came my way when I:

  • Engaged in grateful conversation with a new customer who, I learned, had just returned from Ground Zero a month after 9/11 where he’d volunteered his time as a forensic dentist identifying victims 
  • Took a little time to talk to a disheveled customer whom others shunned because of his appearance and awkward manner 
  • Praised the work of my support staff, encouraging their interest in learning new skills and helping them feel positive about themselves 
  • Showed patience with employees when things went awry, said funny things to break tension, always looked for the upside, and helped keep things in perspective 

These actions don’t compromise productivity, even when it’s crunch time. They are simply small gestures of humanity and kindness that ultimately energize people, creating a climate conducive to getting more work done right.

The concept of “paying it forward” applies to the way we treat others. We need to remember how it felt when someone was kind to us and give that gift to someone else. 

We make the difference! 

Leading by example includes the way we interact with the people around us.  Anyone of us can brighten a dark climate at work. We just have to want to. No one can stop us from being kind, warm, optimistic, and caring. Our business fitness reflects our ability to bring a genuine regard for others to the workplace. Spreading a spirit of kindness creates a powerful legacy! Please let that be yours.

Do you have a story where an act of kindness at work made a difference? What more can we do to humanize the workplace? Thanks.


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!


Coworkers Hard to Know? Scratch Their Surface | Relationship Building Discoveries

Sometimes we just can’t get a line on the people we work with. They seem so composed or unpredictable, uptight or laid back, pessimistic or optimistic. What is it with them, anyway?

When we can’t quite figure out our coworkers (or even our bosses), we feel uncertain about how to go about building a relationship with them. So, we put our detective face on:

  • Watching and listening for clues about what makes them tick
  • Asking our colleagues to share their perceptions
  • Speculating and scenario building based on our observations
  • Analyzing and revising our views along the way 

This is all so typical and often the road to nowhere.

What you see is rarely what you get!  

Work is different things to different people. For some it’s a:

  • Refuge from domestic strife
  • Playing field for one’s competitive drive
  • Source of revenue to fund a way of life
  • Place to feel important and valued
  • Community where there’s a sense of belonging 

Most people don’t showcase their whole selves at work. We come to work with the personal brand that we are willing to let others see, hoping to add a strong professional brand to it.

When we start to wonder why relationship building is so difficult, we should check our own cover to see what we’re showing or hiding. What do people know, suspect, or find curious about us?

The coworkers we watch are also watching us.

Be a teammate, not a detective. 

Great relationships evolve from common bonds and trust. Give a little—get a little and then give a little more. The secret sauce here is in the bonds. What is it that connects you to the people you work with?

  • Shared commitment to the work
  • Pride in your work ethic and standards
  • Willingness to acknowledge your weaknesses and to help each other
  • A sense of humor and compatible aspirations 

Relationships are built on give and take. Sometimes you have to give longer than you’d hoped. Relationships take time. We have to want them. Why? Because they are good for us and our organizations.

But relationships also challenge us, particularly our patience, sensibilities, and our own self-centeredness. They’re often humbling, teaching us a great deal about the burdens that our coworkers bring to work or return to afterward.

Here are two interesting people I’d like you to meet:

Mark supervised 20 customer service reps in a large call center. He was well liked by his employees although considered a bit distracted and even indifferent. Mark was also an avid collector of war memorabilia, everything from Civil War uniforms to canons. He shared the joy of his “treasure hunting” with a wife whom he adored—a wife whose degenerative eye disease led her each day to a fate of total blindness.

Maria was a go-getter at a large company, so eager to get work done to please her boss that she ran over everyone in her path. As an immigrant from Central America, she felt she had to out-perform everyone else to have a chance at advancement. Maria came from a very poor family and had father who was tough on her. She came to the U.S. as a teenager determined to “make it.” Every day was a challenge for her, and even after she’d attained unquestioned success, she could not stop pushing, always fearing possible failure.

Scratch the surface. Find a gem. 

We all have a story. It’s what makes us who we are. Our stories are the color commentary of our lives. The life experiences we bring to our jobs enrich our work and our relationships. Not every story belongs in the workplace, but certain ones help us to connect with others while bringing the most out in us.

Our business fitness grows from the relationships we build, the connections we nurture, and the following that we attract. We’re all more than our skill sets!

How do you go about building relationships at work with people you aren’t comfortable with? Any pitfalls we should know about? Thanks.