THE BLOG

Create Boundaries at Work

04/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Nicole Williams Career Expert, Bestselling Author, 'Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success'

Do you recognize this person? Within minutes of meeting your new co-worker, you know her boyfriend just dumped her, her mom is pre-menopausal, and she hasn't slept in days thanks to a killer migraine. If this woman is anything like the people I've known, it won't be long before she's calling you "sweetie" and embracing you in a big, fat hug.

Whatever you do, don't become that person. If there's one thing I can promise you, it's this: Your ability to create boundaries is hands-down one of the most memorable, effective ways to differentiate and express yourself. Be aware of where your personal boundaries stop and your professional boundaries begin.

These are just a few of the confusing and challenging boundary issues I most frequently encounter with the young women I work with. Do any of these quotes sound familiar?

"I didn't mean to make out with my boss at the office party."

You can think about your boundaries until your head throbs, but it's pointless to live in fear of stepping over the line. Why? You'll truly understand your limits when you cross them. You don't even have to spend time thinking about it. Your body will send immediate signals when you've crossed the line, so it's up to you to protect yourself.

Even if you do step over your boundaries, you're free to come back. The experience will actually help you draw better limits next time. And don't think a "line cross" ever defines you. So you made out with your boss. You're not going to do it again, and you're definitely not doomed to a life of professional prostitution. In the words of Marianne Williamson, "The problem is not that you attract unavailable people, the problem is that you give them your number."

"I'm not going to tell him to back off. I want him to like me."
The "him" in this scenario is a young woman's boss, and, in one form or another, I hear this sentiment way too often. Please repeat after me: Work is not a popularity contest and there is an immense difference between being liked and being respected. People respect others who respect themselves enough to establish personal and professional boundaries -- people who have opinions, people who demand what they're worth, people who say no.

"I swear she picks on me."
Bullies can sniff out fear a mile away. They sense your vulnerability and get poised to attack, and they're relying on the fact that you won't call them on their actions. Just like in the schoolyard, bullying is rooted in insecurity -- theirs, not yours. I can almost promise that if you call your bully's bluff and expressly define your unwillingness to take her bullshit, she will back off and find a new victim.

"I'm so stupid, I can't believe I told her I forgot the deadline."
While it's crucial to define what people can say and do to you, don't forget about what you're revealing to others. Monitor your conversations. What do you tell people about yourself? People will believe what you tell them, so refrain from saying, "I'm so lazy" or "I'm so stupid." Instead tell them you are smart and responsible. If you tell people you're tired and lack focus they'll believe it, and even worse, so will you.

"I thought we really made a great connection, but she didn't say hi on the way to her office."

You will make amazing friendships in the workplace -- maybe even with your boss -- but please remember, unlike in mutual, healthy friendships, there is a definitive power imbalance. It's your boss writing your performance review, signing your paychecks, and assigning your projects -- not your friend. If you do find yourself with a budding friendship at work, take the time to acknowledge and define the boundaries between your personal and professional relationships.

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