Inspire a Productive Culture With Workplace Boundaries

We’ve talked about how important it is to clearly outline your company’s employer brand and culture. But sometimes it can be difficult to understand the specifics of how to get people to act a certain way or how to make it clear what is acceptable and what is not within your workplace.

Enter: boundaries. They define acceptable behavior and basic displays of respect within your organization.

When your organization has boundaries, they’re often difficult to clearly identify. But when your organization doesn’t’ have boundaries the symptoms are very clear: your employees aren’t properly engaged or focused, there’s confusion about how people should react to different situations, there’s a lack of company identity or cohesiveness, and there’s a sense of disconnection and fragmentation within your departments or business units.

Boundaries are not restrictive. Rather, they are empowering. Establishing and working on boundaries within your culture can lead to a more peaceful and productive working environment. Here are three guidelines for establishing and enforcing boundaries and what it might look like within your workplace:

Build boundaries around your company values

If you don’t have a clear set of company values it shouldn’t be a surprise that people within your organization aren’t sure how to act. Values give boundaries a rock to stand on, and it’s only once you establish your values that you can begin to outline what the boundaries within your organization should be.

For example, if you want your company culture to be expressive and lighthearted, humor might be an important value for you. But we all know that there is a wide range of behavior and language that fits within the world of humor. Setting boundaries around what kind of language is acceptable and which topics are off-limits will help prospective candidates understand if they’re a good fit for the environment and help current employees engage freely within those terms.

A company could establish these boundaries by including examples of good and bad humor in a company onboarding document or by responding appropriately to on-the-spot violations of those boundaries (laughing when the jokes are appropriate, then not laughing when the jokes are not appropriate and speaking with employees individually if the inappropriate humor continues). There are also more suggestions here.

Define the behavior you want to see

Effective boundaries keep everyone in your organization in the know about what is expected of them. That way there is no guessing at the best way to respond to a problem or wondering if there will be a punishment for handling a situation a certain way. Rather, your leadership team has defined the behavior it wishes to see and what it will do when that behavior isn’t happening.

For example, if your company-wide value is “Respectful Communication,” then your leadership team should also identify behaviors that lead to respectful communication (starting the conversation with a friendly greeting, being polite in the words and tone we use) and signs that respectful communication is not happening (one or more parties are frustrated, conversations escalate into loud disagreements). That will lead everyone in the organization to have a common definition of respect and a clear understanding of how to react and resolve situations that don’t meet that standard.

Bring focus back to your shared purpose and goals

Along with establishing values, discussions about boundaries should always lead back to your organization’s shared purpose and goals. “Respectful Communication” and “Friendly Humor” are simply vehicles that your organization uses to reach the overall goal of serving your client base or developing the best products in your industry. Orienting those values and the behaviors that align with those values toward your company’s ultimate purpose will help each employee see how their behavior plays into the big picture–and how each resolution will also be oriented toward those values and the company’s ultimate purpose.

For example, when an argument about a certain product attribute comes up, a company with excellent boundaries in place would be able to acknowledge that the course of the communication isn’t going well and decide to re-align the discussion with the company’s ultimate purpose. With both parties agreeing that the ultimate purpose is to design a product that meets a given need within the client base, the discussion is taken from the specific instance and widened to what both parties have in common: the ultimate vision of what they are trying to build together.

Within an organization, setting boundaries is the foundation for appropriate communication and respectful behavior. And while it might feel like you’re setting up walls or limiting engagement within your company culture, in reality you are establishing the building blocks of what it means to succeed as a member of your company.

What company values are you trying to instill within your organization? How can values help you accomplish that goal?