Why you should set boundaries at work

A boundary is a very useful, if sometimes difficult concept to implement for yourself as a leader. It takes courage and commitment!

Steffan Surdek
March 20, 2023
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Do you feel that you spend more time reacting to people around you and responding to requests then working on your own priorities? Does this make you feel less efficient as a leader?

These days, I talk a lot about co-creative leadership with my clients. One of the skills that comes up a lot is dancing with the system around you. This skill is about learning how to influence the complex adaptive system that is your workplace.

What if you could decide how to organize your workday and priorities? Setting and enforcing boundaries with others is one way that you can dance with the system to better manage this and become a master of your own time.

In this article, I will focus on boundaries, what they are and how you can use them to help you create healthier working relationships with your teams and everyone around you.

What is a boundary?

Boundaries separate what you will accept from what you will not accept. It shows others what you allow and how you allow others to treat you.

It also makes clear to other people how you want to work. When you set a clear line in the sand, people will generally accept it.

It comes down to not letting other people take decisions about how you want to work, how you manage your time or how you want to be treated. It is about protecting yourself and protecting your team.

A boundary can be:

  • The things you want to do or not do
  • The timeframe to deliver a result
  • The type of last-minute requests you accept
  • The process for receiving requests (for example, what should go through you, what should go to someone else on your team)

Why setting boundaries is important

When leaders move up to senior and executive roles, they get more requests on their time and attention from other people in the organization to solve problems.

What can end up happening is that as a leader, you start taking everything that comes in. You end up feeling overwhelmed and not being able to say no. You show up at work and put out firestorms one after another. What happens is you do not have ownership of how you manage your time because you are doing what other people want.

You do not need to be a victim of your circumstances. You have choices in what you are willing to accept and not accept. Remember that you are training others in how to interact with you. If you do not have boundaries, you are teaching people that they can ask for whatever they want. When you have boundaries, you are training people to work with you in a way that is productive to you.

You can set boundaries with individuals, with your group, with other departments or even other organizations. Setting boundaries about how you want to work together can help make these relationships smoother.

How to set and enforce your boundaries

To start, ask yourself a few questions to identify what is important to you in your life. Then, you will go into more detail about what to do to draw that line in the sand.

1. What are your priorities and values?

For example, for you this could mean having more time for your personal life or always taking the time to eat lunch. Knowing this, what are you willing to accept? What commitments are you willing to make to others? What commitments do you need from others?

2. What are your deal breakers?

Based on your priorities and values, identify what is non-negotiable for you. What do you no longer want to accept? This could be different kind of work, how people ask for things, last-minute requests, late meetings or lunch meetings... Make sure that this is clear for you, because this is where your boundary will be.

3. What happens if your boundary is crossed?

This question is about holding people accountable if and when they step over the line. Think about how you want to have a conversation with others around specific boundaries. Which ones are you ready to be more flexible on? How will you make sure that people do not keep crossing the same boundary over and over?

4. How do you negotiate boundaries?

You can have hard boundaries and soft boundaries. Is there a way for you to negotiate in some ways? What are you willing to compromise on? Use these as opportunities to start conversations with people on their own priorities. Remember that you also need to respect the boundaries and the needs of the other person.


It is actually healthy to have boundaries. Once you take the step of setting and enforcing them, people begin to learn what is acceptable and what is not when working with you. That is why it is critical that you stay consistent on this point.

Boundary enforcement is certainly difficult as a leader. What makes it even harder is that enforcing boundaries may disappoint or frustrate people. But at your level, leaders cannot focus on making everybody happy all the time. It is about learning to play the long game, not about winning every single battle.

Finally, make sure that your team members feel safe to enforce boundaries with you as their leader. Teach them that they can be transparent when negotiating boundaries to get results that are mutually beneficial.

What are some boundaries that could help you be more efficient as a leader? Which boundaries could help your team work together better?