Leadership Skills: Mastering Personal Boundaries
Updated: Jan 31
Discover the Art of Saying 'No' and Protecting Your Emotional Space in Leadership and Beyond
We are encouraged to think of boundaries as something you might see on a calendar or a clock—that's not strictly true. Personal boundaries are the barriers between your emotions and the emotions of others. Boundaries are like a bouncer deciding who gets let into Club Del Emotions.
When we hear someone described as having poor boundaries, we often conclude that their boundaries are too weak. But just like a bouncer, being too strong can be as problematic as being too weak.
People with poor boundaries come in two flavours: those who take too much responsibility for the emotions of others and those who give others too much responsibility for their emotions. Sound familiar?
Those with boundaries that are too weak take responsibility for the emotional regulation of others and give responsibility for their emotional regulation to others.
Those with too strong boundaries struggle to connect with those around them emotionally and are rarely moved by the emotional experiences of others.
Boundaries are important in leadership as they help us remain objective while empathising. The only way to build trust with others is to balance being the boss with being a person—consistently showing up for people fairly and measuredly.
If you're trying to move into leadership and are being told you're not yet ready, it may be because your boundaries are too strong or weak.
If you are in leadership and are starting to feel resentful about the demands on your time, energy and well-being, you, too, need to take a closer look at your boundaries.
How to Maintain Personal Boundaries
It's one thing to say you won't answer emails on the weekend. It's another not to feel guilty about it. Having healthy boundaries means knowing that not replying to someone before Monday may cause them an issue, but that is their issue.
You can't be held responsible for them being sad, angry, disappointed, embarrassed or even afraid of the consequences of their actions. That includes not holding yourself responsible for how they feel.
The problem is that when a boundary is tested, it can be a triggering experience. When someone tries to make you accountable for the outcome of their actions it's a whole mess of "Am I wrong?" or "Are they wrong?" often with a triple side serving of self-doubt, fight-or-flight physical responses or people-pleasing tendencies.
Maybe there's even a sprinkle of WTF! on there, too.
This is why it helps to know in advance what you will say when a boundary is tested. At times of stress, knowing how to say no is half the battle.
If someone is testing your boundaries, here are some simple, polite, and professional ways to remind them that their problem is exactly that... their problem.
When someone asks you to work late,
"I really appreciate you being respectful of my commitments outside work."
"I am willing to help out, but twice this week is my limit or I'll be no help to anyone."
"I already have commitments during that time. Could we find another suitable time or perhaps hand this to someone else?"
When someone shares their anger,
"I'd appreciate it if we could stick to professional language."
"I'm not OK with the way you put that."
"That's the kind of thing [sexists] might say."
When someone tries to offload work onto you,
"I don't have the capacity for additional responsibilities, and I wouldn't want to let you down."
"I can't commit to this right now, but please keep me in mind for future opportunities."
"While I'm always up for a challenge, someone else beat you to it."
When someone tries to offload onto you,
"I can tell how upsetting this is for you. Do you have someone to speak to about it?"
Finally, I shall leave you with this final piece of advice.
The important thing to remember is that your boundaries are yours. You can do whatever you like, which (perhaps counterintuitively) means you can choose to ignore them.
Deciding when you are going to go out of your way for a colleague is a powerful move.
But if you are tempted to change a boundary you set while in a good place and with a clear head, you owe it to yourself to be in the same place when you decide to reset it.