You get what you tolerate – establishing boundaries in the workplace

You get what you tolerate – establishing boundaries in the workplace

Trevor is a millennial healthcare analyst living and working in the Atlanta area. Over the last few years, he’s been working for a large Atlanta hospital offering a variety of healthcare services to Atlanta residents. Trevor loves his job and has been working hard to receive a promotion for his efforts. Although this is the case, he’s been consistently taken advantage of by his bosses and peers because of his willingness to help others. He’s currently working with a few co-workers on a project and feels as though they haven’t contributed equally to its completion.

On top of that, his boss recently asked him to work on a big section of a project he’s delayed working on for weeks. The project deadline is in 2 days and he foresees having to put in quite a few extra hours outside of regular work hours to complete the assignment. What can Trevor do to ensure that he’s able to establish boundaries between his co-workers and his boss while maintaining his team player image? In this article we’ll delve into a few strategies:

What are boundaries?

thinking - boundaries

This is a question I often get asked by my clients when we discuss the concept of boundaries. Although boundaries are easy to spot when you look at a country’s border, the out of bounds of a football field or a fence surrounding a property they can be difficult to define in personal and professional relationships. In this context, boundaries are the invisible lines that define what can and can’t be done in a relationship.  For example, in my relationship with my girlfriend, one of the established boundaries is that I cannot disrespect and/or hit her. If I were to overstep these boundaries, it would be grounds for immediate termination of the relationship.  As with romantic relationships, professional relationships need clearly defined boundaries to ensure they remain healthy and productive.

If boundaries aren’t established and a person feels taken advantage of, it can lead to resentment and overall unhappiness. The first step of setting boundaries is admitting that there needs to be some in the first place. In the case of Trevor, he needs to acknowledge that he’s been taking on more than his fair share of responsibilities to pick up the slack for his un-motivated coworkers and his disorganized boss. In the next section, we’ll explore how he can define clear boundaries that can be implemented in his day to day work life.

Defining your boundaries

do not cross - boundaries

When defining boundaries for your work relationships, imagine a football field. There are clearly defined out of bounds and touchdown lines. Individuals who play on the field know exactly where they can and can’t go in order to remain in the field of play. This is exactly how you must define your boundaries if you want others to respect them. To start, grab a sheet of paper and write out a list of actions/behaviors you will no longer tolerate from your professional relationships. Examples of these actions/behaviors could be not producing their fair share of the project requirements, last minute project requests, calling your home at all hours to request help etc. In Trevor’s case, a good example of a boundary for his co-workers would be to outline the responsibilities of each team member prior to starting a new project.

This will ensure that his co-workers understand what is expected of them and will give Trevor documentation to reference if they fall short of their expectation. In the case of his boss, Trevor could make a resolution that he will not accept work requests that eat into his personal obligations after work or have deadlines less than X days away. By establishing this boundary he’ll be better able to keep his promises to his personal relationships (girlfriend, friends etc.) and condition his boss to better organize his time to avoid last minute projects.

Enforcing your boundaries

referee - boundaries

Congratulations on making it this far! Taking the proper steps towards defining your boundaries is not an easy task and I commend you for your commitment to improving your life. Although your progress thus far is cause for celebration, now comes the difficult part. You’ve become the referee of your life and have been charged with enforcing the rules of play. Are you excited about your awesome new role?! Now that you’ve clearly defined boundaries you want to implement, you’ll need to make sure to enforce them with those around you.

Since your professional relationships have been used to stepping over your boundaries in the past, there may be some confrontation initially. In Trevor’s case, his co-workers may lash out because of the extra work on their plate and Trevor’s boss might try to guilt Trevor into helping him with his last-minute project. When these situations arise, you must be respectful of their disapproval but firm with your boundaries. Below I’ve written a few solid responses Trevor could use when he receives an objection from his co-workers or boss:


1)  I understand that you feel bogged down with extra work but we clearly defined the responsibilities of each team member prior to beginning the project. I’ll be here to provide moral support but I won’t be able to provide any further assistance due to other obligations.


1a) Although I do appreciate that you thought of me as your go-to person on this, I will have to respectfully decline your request. I have a prior commitment with my girlfriend tonight and won’t be able to fulfill your request. If you need help during regular work hours I’d be happy to help after I’ve completed my current work obligations.

1b) Although I do appreciate that you thought of me as your go-to person on this, I will have to respectfully decline your request. I’ve made a resolution to not accept projects that have a deadline of x days away. The reason for this is because it causes my work quality on the project to suffer and it gets in the way of other work obligations. If you need help during regular work hours I’d be happy to help after I’ve completed my current work obligations.

Take some time to come up with some responses and practice delivering them in front of a mirror. You’re a strong professional who deserves to be respected in the workplace.

Bringing it all together

After another last-minute request from his boss caused him to miss a dinner date with his girlfriend, Trevor knew that he had to establish clear boundaries with his boss and co-workers. He started by taking out a piece of paper and outlining behavior that he would no longer tolerate from people he worked with. He committed to only doing his fair share of upcoming projects and refusing last minute project requests from his boss. Although this caused some turmoil initially, his coworkers fussed about having to do more work and his boss made him feel guilty for leaving the office early, his professional relationships began to improve. His co-workers started taking responsibility for their fair share of projects and his boss began allocating his time more effectively to avoid embarrassment in his weekly status report meetings. Throughout this entire process, Trevor would offer moral support but made sure not to take on the responsibility of others.

Trevor now enjoys his professional relationships more, has kept his persona as a team player alive and eventually received the promotion he had been working towards. Without set boundaries, life can feel as though it’s consistently demanding your time and energy. Although we do have responsibilities that are important for us to perform, we should not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of by others. By using the strategies outlined in this article, you’ll be well on your way to crafting healthier professional relationships and taking back control of your life.


My book recommendation for this article is “Boundaries” Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend.  In this book, Dr. Cloud and Townsend outline how to set boundaries in various areas of your life so that you can have healthier and more fulfilling relationships. I found this book extremely insightful and have implemented many of the techniques into my own life. I highly recommend it and have provided a link to the book below:

Be sure to also check out my new book “The Millennial Playbook: Proven Success Strategies for the Millennial Generation”. This book is packed with strategies and techniques Millennial’s can implement to improve their lives. I’m donating 100% of the profits to Puerto Rico Relief efforts. I’ve provided a link to the book below: