How to set appropriate boundaries in the workplace

by 24 Apr 2012

Some may find the concept of workplace boundaries a challenging notion given a boundary can’t be seen, but their importance shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, understanding and adhering to boundaries will help you thrive at work.

If you understand your workplace responsibilities, you often feel safe and more satisfied in your role. You’re also likely to feel far greater trust in your leadership team and be far more effective at work, even in the absence of a leader.

The definition of a professional boundary can best be described as your ability to understand where you end and another person begins. This includes understanding a colleague’s need for space, setting limits, determining acceptable workplace behaviour and creating a sense of autonomy.

If you’ve ever travelled in a lift in Hong Kong , China or Japan, you’ll understand what a need for personal space means. Here, locals cram into the lift, which goes totally against the personal space boundaries in Australia.

It’s up to you to learn and adhere to physical space and the various other boundaries that exist in the workplace. It’s also worth bearing in mind that understanding and adhering to workplace boundaries is in fact your responsibility.

Determine your boundaries

When trying to ascertain your workplace boundaries, don’t rely on a written job description. These are often far too broad and vague when it comes to boundaries. If that’s the case for you, be sure to clarify your duties and responsibilities with your superior.

Determining acceptable limits is a far easier process if you can answer these questions: 


  • What is your role
  • What is your job description
  • Who assigns your work
  • Who sets your work priorities
  • Who gives you feedback
  • Who do you speak to if you have a problem 

Make sure you know the answers to the above when you’re first starting out with an organisation, because it shows you take the role seriously and that you want to do your best. Setting workplace boundaries is also a great way to demonstrate autonomy.

Be sure to also consider how boundaries related to other aspects of the workplace, such as the appropriate dress code and social media policy.

One way to do this is to observe the culture of an organisation, looking at how people interact in the workplace. It’s vital to know what’s acceptable and what’s not. This includes learning how to have appropriate conversations with colleagues to set clear expectations, and being able to say no when necessary.

Be mindful of your time

Be aware of the time you have in which to complete your tasks, too. You have eight hours to get your work done for the day, so make sure you know what you need to do in that time and prioritise the most important tasks. The best way to do this is to tackle the jobs that drain your energy first while you’re still fresh. Or, it might be a good idea to spend the first 10 minutes of your day determining which tasks will make you feel most successful for the day.

Breaks are also important for your well-being at work. If you eat lunch at your desk, you’re likely to be interrupted by the phone or a colleague, which means that you start the afternoon feeling like you haven’t had a mental break from work. So get out of the office and walk around the block, at least.

Don’t be a victim

It may feel as though you’re being bullied by someone in the workplace, but it’s wise to remember that this could well just be your filter. It’s also possible for a colleague or superior’s emotion or stress to be passed to you, so make sure you’re in control of your own emotions.

So, remember the importance of having clearly defined boundaries. Not only will it help you thrive professionally, it will enable an organisation to operate far more efficiently. These four agreements (from ‘The Four agreements’ by Dom Miguel Ruiz) are a great way to approach your role at work. 


  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Don’t take things personally
  • Always do your best

If you’re in any doubt about where your workplace boundaries lie, ask your boss.

About the author

Julie Parkinson is director of the Institute of Executive Coaching. The Institute works with organisations to provide innovative leadership and coaching support to improve the performance of individuals, teams and organisations. For further information visit.