Create positive work cultures by setting boundaries

By Carol J. Huston | 10/31/2019

Goal is fostering healthy connections.

This chapter from The Road to Positive Work Cultures, published by Sigma, examines the importance of setting appropriate boundaries in relationships with others.

Road to Positive Work CulturesOne strategy that leaders can use to create a positive work culture is to maintain appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are the limits we set to protect ourselves. They can be fairly rigid or loose. Martin (2018b) suggests that boundaries are imaginary lines that separate your physical space, feelings, needs, and responsibilities from others. Your boundaries also tell other people how they can treat you—what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Without boundaries, people may take advantage of you because you haven’t set limits on how you expect to be treated.

For example, I have created a boundary on social media between my personal and professional relationships. While I accept connections on my LinkedIn account from almost all healthcare-related, interdisciplinary colleagues, I limit my Facebook connections to close friends and family. This differentiates what I post on each site and what information each group can access.

The Road to Positive Work Cultures

Implementing boundaries, however, can sometimes be confusing to others. It might be helpful to remember that boundaries are intended to foster a healthy connection, not lead to relational disconnect or cutoff. “Boundaries communicate safety—and figuratively demarcate where I end, and you begin. Thus, boundaries allow us to make clear what is our responsibility and what is not. Much emotional turmoil and distress comes from taking on what is not ours, or letting others take responsibility for what is actually ours” (Chun, 2018, para. 10).

Another boundary is physical. All of us have some degree of personal distance that we consider to be a “safe space” between ourselves and others. This distance can vary by individual, though, particularly in relation to cultural differences. For example, I remember a former student who frequently attempted to put his arm around or touch his peers and, sometimes, even the faculty. He did not pick up the subtle clues most people are attuned to—that his behavior was making them feel uncomfortable. In fact, direct and repeated confrontation was required for his behavior to stop. Similarly, I am a “hugger,” and I must be vigilant that my desire or propensity to hug someone to provide support or encouragement might be crossing their personal space boundary or be misinterpreted in some way.

Indeed, boundaries are essential to healthy relationships—and, really, a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries are skills, however, that many people don’t have. With people who have similar communication styles, views, personalities, and general approach to life, it may be easy (Tartakovsky, 2018). However, with others, communication about boundaries must be more direct. In all cases, when a boundary is crossed, feedback must be given that it’s not OK, or anger and resentment will occur. A boundary is worthless if it is not enforced by feedback and consequences (Martin, 2018b).

Click here to read the rest of Chapter 3 and view supplemental materials for The Road to Positive Work Cultures in the Virginia Henderson Global Nursing e-Repository of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma). 

Click here to buy at the Sigma Marketplace.

Carol J. Huston, DPA, MSN, RN, FAAN, is an emerita professor at the School of Nursing at California State University, Chico, where she teaches part time, and is chair of the Enlow Medical Center Board of Trustees. She served as president of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma) from 2007-09.

Read a chapter from Huston's earlier book, The Road to Leadership.

Read Reflections on Nursing Leadership article “California’s Camp Fire: The disaster didn’t end when the flames went out,” Huston’s account of a destructive wildfire near her home in November 2018.

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