Leaders Can Struggle with Boundaries. Here is why it is important to say no.

by Angela Kambouris

Boundaries are to trust like hot water is to a teabag. You cannot make tea if you do not have the fundamentals for it. Likewise, you cannot get a trustworthy relationship if you do not define your own necessities.

Boundaries are critical to healthy relationships with partners, friends and even co-workers. So many people struggle with saying ‘no’ and articulating where their limits start and end. Building up your boundaries if you have never tried can feel uncomfortable. Boundaries can show people how you want to be respected, how to be communicated early on. Most people will adjust, however people who exhibit toxic behaviours will not, and that is when you need to show them the exit sign.

Boundaries are not set in stone. When you feel comfortable with your boundaries, you can bend and adapt them. Strong boundaries protect your self-esteem, your identity, and your right to make your own choices. They are your own invisible force field, and you are responsible for protecting it.

Here are seven ways leaders can implement boundaries and lead in the workplace.

No maybe the kindest and most powerful words in the English language

No is a human right, one worth defending when it is disrespected, ignored, or used against someone. In a different context, ‘no’ can be beneficial to self-care and protect your energy.

Leaders need to at times say ‘no’ to a get together via zoom, another additional meeting, or a new commitment. To take it one step further, no can mean trust. It is someone trusting your decision not to go along with an idea or action. Being clear on your boundaries means you can trust yourself more.

Handle your boundaries with grace

Communicating your lines start and end with you. When leaders are clear about their boundaries, you protect your personal self and delineate between what is negotiable and what is not. A lack of boundaries allows others to determine your thoughts, feelings and needs without any guidance from you.

Often people speak of physical boundaries – body, personal space and privacy and not place much weight on emotional boundaries. Emotional boundaries involve freeing your feelings from others. When co-workers violate your boundaries, they can include taking responsibility for your feelings, letting their feelings dictate your own, you can sacrifice your own need to please another, and blame others for your problems. You can restore your physical and emotional wellbeing through implementing healthy and functional boundaries as they give you a clear sense of who you are. As you become more centred, you live your values.

 Honour you first

Healthy boundaries start with accepting that you are enough just the way you are. Leaders, you do not need to be fixed, save, or rescue others, nor seek other people’s permission, approval, or validation. By committing to prioritize your needs, feelings, and goals, you can identify a list of boundaries that you would like to strengthen.

By permitting yourself to feel great with ways of establishing and maintaining your boundaries, you are leading through your inner compass. Start with boundaries such as saying no to tasks you do not have time to do without apology or feeling guilt, delegating tasks, asking for help or space, and voicing how you feel uncomfortable with how someone is behaving and treating you. Once you have listed the boundaries, you want to build upon, visualize yourself expressing them, role play with a trusted friend and communicate with others what your boundaries are and when they have been infringed upon.

Set standards

Clear boundaries are a sign of emotional health, self-respect, and strength. You set the standards of how you want to be treated. When shifting dynamics in a relationship, you may feel some resistance from the other person. When this occurs, continue to communicate your needs and expectations clearly, calmly, and consistently. Stick to the facts without overexplaining, blaming, shaming, or becoming defensive. Repeat the same statement as many times as you need. If your boundaries are not respected, evaluate your options and act. Healthy relationships are a balance of giving and take.

Boundary violators

People who exhibit toxic behaviours can ooze negative energy, take advantage of your kindness, do not respect your feelings, or needs, tend to blame others, and do not take responsibility for their actions. Emotional vampires in the workplace tend to have a lot of drama and challenges and do not want to change. They see themselves as the exception where rules do not apply to them. Here are some strategies to set boundaries as part of an ongoing process:

  • Identify what you are willing to negotiate and what is not negotiable. Compromise is great when both people adjust; however, you do not abandon your needs to please someone else or accept behaviour that you deem unacceptable. You determine how long you will tolerate a repeat boundary violation.
  • Journal boundary violations and your responses. This will assist in identifying blind spots and how you can adjust. Please explore what you are willing to accept and how you feel about it. When you are consistent, identify what you have implemented.
  • The bottom line is that there are people who will not respect your boundaries no matter what you do. You determine whether you will continue a relationship with this person. You either accept the behaviour, or you disengage.
  • Stop trying to force the outcome you want. Sometimes you need to leave an uncomfortable situation physically, respond differently to change the dynamics of the interaction, or decline invitations to spend time with them. When you detach, you reinforce that you are a priority, and you are taking care of you.

Invest in self-care and build daily habits

When you invest in your daily habits of self-care, you strengthen your ability to set clear personal boundaries. You send yourself the message that “I am worth taking care of”. By practising mindfulness, nourishing your body with nutritious food, rewarding yourself through connecting with nature, are examples of practices that nurture you.

Just as building daily self-care habits, learning to say no to non-essential things like getting together, social duties or additional work meetings that are not life-or-death, can prevent stress and burnout.  As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits says to start with a tiny habit, increase it in small ways, as you build it up, break it down into chunks and when you slip, get back on track quickly. Be patient and stick to a pace you can sustain.

Seek Out A Professional

 Sometimes you need to go one step further and gain an outside perspective to help you can insight and find new ways to set and maintain healthy boundaries. A coach, mentor or therapist may offer insights into understanding dynamics, how they may affect you and prevent you from expressing and enforcing your boundaries. Learning what boundaries are needed to thrive in personal and professional relationships and adopting a self-care routine concurrently will help you detach, step back into your power and allow you to lead you in the workplace.


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