As I explore the concept of followership in the workplace, one skill has popped up again and again as simultaneously the most critical and also the most difficult: setting boundaries. Setting boundaries, of course, is not only for work – we all need to set healthy boundaries for ourselves in many aspects of our lives, regardless of whether we’re playing the roles of leader or follower. Professionally speaking, though, I see boundary setting as a followership skill because it primarily addresses the execution of individual or collective labor, whereas leadership qualities tend to address the organization of that labor.
What’s a boundary then? For me, no one defines it better, and more succinctly, than Brené Brown: “It’s what’s ok and what’s not ok.” Or, in the work place, perhaps “what I can/will do and what I can’t/won’t do.” Different from expectations, which are typically set by leaders in advance, boundaries are maintained and communicated by followers in the ongoing course of work as they realize what is realistic, safe, or possible.
For example, you may wish to set a boundary around the scope of a given task or assignment, or around how much you can accomplish given the external constraints of a project and the time available. In my observation, expectation and boundary are often in dialogue, and of course each impacts the other. In an unhealthy work situation, you may experience this dialogue as leaders “making demands” and followers “pushing back,” but in a more functional dynamic, it might look more like leader and follower sharing distinct perspectives in order to collaboratively refine the timeline.
When these boundaries are not clear, your stress level is likely to rise. You may notice that you miss deadlines, skip lunch, and feel exhausted at the end of the day. Not only that, but because our work is directly connected to others’ work, our lack of healthy boundaries around what is possible and sustainable can disrupt project timelines, budgeting, or client relationships when inevitably, expectations are not met.
You may also set boundaries in your life to negotiate work, family, and personal time. Agreements not to work on the weekends, lunch breaks, family dinner times, and date nights are all examples of boundaries that balance multiple priorities to maintain a healthy well-being.
How do you know if you have need a stronger boundary? Here are a couple of ways to explore that question, whether at work, at home, or in your personal life:
1. Are there situations where you have trouble saying no?
2. Do you feel drained or tired around a particular activity, place, or person?
3. Are there situations where you tend to complain or feel resentful about “having to do” something?
4. Do you long for more time to yourself?
If any of these questions brought a specific situation to mind, I encourage you to spend 10-15 minutes writing in a journal about it. Write freely without any censoring whatsoever! The first step in establishing healthy boundaries is identifying where you need them! This simple exercise may reveal some potential changes that could help you to live and work in a healthier, more sustainable way.