Good Boundaries Make Good Colleagues and Friends

Harmonious working relationships are what keep you in the game.


Do you ever find yourself with a little skip in your step, subconsciously rushing to the elevator so someone else doesn't get in there with you? I know I'm not alone in this. It may be someone who's about to ask me a question I'm not ready to answer. It may be a moment when my head is spinning with too many things to handle some small talk. Or it may be that I just long for a minute of quiet.

I think I'm a fairly nice guy. I love people. But I have limits — and I think it makes me a better colleague. It definitely makes me a better friend. And here's why the subject of boundaries and work relationships feels important right now. Gallup polls have repeatedly shown positive outcomes associated with workplace friendships, and the isolation many of us felt during the pandemic amplified this conception of professional intimacy as valuable.

But why am I emphasizing boundaries in the same discussion as closeness? Because I think you can't have one without the other. In fact, boundaries facilitate the kind of valuable and productive friendships that we have been missing.

Boundaries Create Trust

Should we feel bad when we push the "close door" button on the elevator? Is it selfish, or even rude, to want a minute to yourself? If there's only one elevator and you're causing people to wait for you, it could be. But under normal circumstances, this could be an expression of a healthy boundary. If we want to return to positive closeness at work, we have to be willing to close elevator doors if necessary.

The involuntary skip in your step might serve as a little alert that you feel pressed. If there's a particular person you're avoiding, there's a likely reason: you either might not enjoy engaging with them, or worst case, don't trust them. That may seem like a strong statement, and it is, but it's practical. You don't believe that person is aware of your wants and needs and you feel it's in your best interests to avoid them.

You can keep playing that game if you want to, or you can ask yourself if there's something else you could do about it.

  • Are you asking that person to read your mind about how you prefer to be communicated with?
  • Have you made a solid attempt to tell the person how to be successful when they communicate with you?
  • Are you feeling conflicted about your own boundaries and mentally avoiding the topic instead of gaining confidence?

I hate it when someone assumes they can just hit the FaceTime button whenever we're on a call. You don't know if I'm in the bathroom, you don't know if I'm in my robe, you don't know what I'm doing. Why would you assume that? But I also have to ask myself why I assume that the other person should know that. Maybe they're assuming I'll just decline it if I'm indisposed. I'd rather they ask first. I should tell them that.

Understand What Drives You

There are times I tend more toward introversion and others I can be pretty extroverted. But I know that if I'm behaving in an extroverted way when I'm not feeling it, I'm violating my own boundaries. That kind of thing can set me on a slippery slope that leads to burnout. There will always be another day to be social, and I know if I overdo it, I'll only make myself less valuable to my team when it catches up to me.

Be creative

If you're a television anchor, it's probably not an option for you to tell your team that you don't feel like being on camera today. Boundaries will not look the same for every individual, nor will they look the same in every field. If you compare your situation to a senior leader or someone in a different industry, it may breed discontent.

Sometimes the primary person who needs to hear the boundary is yourself. Pay attention to the things you may be doing subconsciously and ask yourself what that might mean.

The Art of Being Known

Has someone ever done something for you that made you smile because they just got you? The phrase "good fences make good neighbors" is not just about fences, it's about neighbors too. The point of good boundaries is not keeping others away from you so that you can live in peace, it's about caring well for the relationships you do have so that they don't send you over the edge.

These harmonious working relationships are what keep you in the game — and the numbers bear that out, in terms of heightened engagement, productivity, and creativity.

One of my favorite lunch partners over the years was a co-worker when I worked for BP/Amoco Corporation who would sit in silence with me as we drove to lunch. We had the good fortune of needing the same thing at the same time — some midday peace. Maintaining both boundaries and harmony with your colleagues won't always be that natural or easy. But it will be worth it.

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