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