Healthy professional boundaries –
the next frontier
Let’s face it, relationship boundaries are a big issue in everyone’s personal life these days. And a lot of us have now had the therapy, completed the mindfulness training and maybe even feel we have a Masters in managing teenagers. Yet at work, healthy boundaries remain tricky. Why?

by Michelle Irving
     The gains we have made in our personal lives are now spilling over culturally into our workplaces. We are transiting the veil from old-fashioned notions of professional hierarchy to the new world of authenticity. And that puts healthy professional relationship boundaries front and centre.

     Let’s be honest, our corporate work environments still glorify ‘busy’, which somehow stands in for saintly. Plus, people's value often continues to be defined by their job title and income. No matter how much we personally rail against it, it persists. That means we are surrounded by anxiety – the ‘Energizer Bunny’ colleague whose nervous system is shot through with caffeine, the workplace bully demanding you do as you are told, the frantic emailer sending out urgent tasks to all and sundry, and the workplace grouch who constantly bemoans who said or did what.
     So at work, we can find ourselves adapting to the dysfunction. We create a suit of armour that tries to suppress our genuine feelings under the bubbly ruse of people-pleasing or a calm layer of detachment. We get sucked in to either becoming embroiled in the emotional needs of others or else walling ourselves off, which makes genuine connection more difficult.

     So let’s talk about how to set boundaries around your workload when the demands are high. Because this is where your integrity and authenticity really come under pressure.

     I faced this exact challenge last week. Like most office conflict situations this one started with a meeting. New project, new deadlines and the inevitable negotiation over who is doing what. I was under pressure to take on more than what is sustainable, and say yes to prioritising other people’s work demands over my own.


     I learned a long time ago that if I don’t set healthy boundaries around my capacity, my body will do it for me (cue chronic migraines). I learned this the hard way, through burnout and the inevitable warning sign of ill health. So, I have a deep inner resolve to have healthy work habits, and negotiate realistic timelines. Does it always go smoothly? Rarely!

     At the meeting I literally said, “I am not able to do that.” Yep, I guess that is just not the way it works at your office. No one can go around expressing their own preferences and setting workload boundaries. And you know this because you have tried. But have you? Have you really authentically set a boundary by saying, “I can’t meet that or do that. I can do this…?” What most of us do is make half-hearted efforts, which in essence are asking someone’s permission for you to have a need. How do I know this? Because I have done it a thousand times myself, and through trial and error really learned how to back my words with my energy.


     So what happened next at the meeting? I set some boundaries around my capacity. I was able to take on some of the work demand, but not everything they wanted. My inner good girl wanted to accommodate their preferences, make everyone happy and not be too much trouble. However my inner wisdom knew exactly what to do and spoke up quite loudly inside, “Do not say anything here, you have set the boundary now let them have their own experience of that. Their disapproval is actually OK.” So I simply stayed neutral through their looks of disapproval and consternation. Now, it’s important to recognise that I was still triggered. I set the appropriate boundary but my collegial relationships took a hit.

    And you know how it goes when you set a boundary; first, most people don’t like it. Second, expect some escalation and push back. I got an email a few hours later pronouncing a new set of ‘expectations’ of my work project, that now included a whole lot of red tape. Now when anyone talks about their expectations, you absolutely know you are in the middle of a power play. And that takes your resolve, honesty and integrity up a few notches. The aim here is not to get in a battle about who is in charge, but rather to stay in alignment with what is healthy for you and also be able to stabilise the working relationship


     In the midst of a lot of talk about authenticity, we seem to hear endlessly about how great it feels. It’s like, if we were just more authentic then we wouldn’t have to deal with anyone’s dysfunction, or we wouldn’t care. However, in reality authenticity almost invariably means confronting your coping patterns (any people pleasers raise your hands!), and the controlling behaviours of others. It means standing your sacred ground and creating healthy professional boundaries. It means taking off some armour, using your discernment and fronting up to the relationship over and over again.

     I let the expectations email ‘go through to the keeper’. I didn’t get embroiled in the nitty gritty. I found a way to cut through the workload, and people agreed to the boundary around my contribution. Then I fronted up for the relationship repair. I called the manager and raised that last week’s meeting felt a bit edgy and I was open to talking through how this impacted each of us. Now here is the great thing, if you turn up in your integrity and open the conversation, most reasonable people will wade in even if they feel hesitant. I owned that I was a bit triggered about how the deadline demands bumped right up against my own workload priorities. And then she opened. In the end I took responsibility for some of my edginess. And while she didn’t quite meet me halfway, she did soften, and we ended the conversation in a much better place than we started.


    Being the mature, well-rounded person at work can be hard. It takes time, patience and a commitment to continue doing the inner work. It means speaking up when you feel shaky or fatigued, it means being the one to open the difficult conversations and it means maintaining as much equilibrium as possible. It’s also the important work. If we want workplaces to be healthier, and we want more autonomy and freedom, then we quite literally need to be the change. And if you are anything like me, you want to live a full-hearted life, have genuine connections and have healthy work habits.

     Michelle Irving is a Melbournebased Authentic Relationship Coach. She runs the successful Authenticity at Work program for women who want more honesty and integrity in their professional lives.

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