Boundaries – Professional, Part 1 – The Office: How to get more out when you go in …

If you skipped over the video above and jumped directly to this text, I would encourage you to go back and watch it. Or go ahead and watch it again, even if you already did. As you view it, try to notice which professional boundary aspects are at play. Which ones are being damaged or broken? Are there also some that are being appropriately held? Just watch and jot down anything you notice that either holds or challenges a temporal, kinetic, cognitive, or interpersonal boundary. Perhaps also pay some attention your internal (or emotional) response to what you notice. What strikes you as “to be expected,” “amusing, but wrong,” or even “appropriate” or “deserved?”

Spoiler alert: Almost none of the behavior we can observe in “The Office” is really appropriate, except perhaps what we see from Toby or, on occasion, Pam, Jim, Darryl, or Oscar. Most of the time, the characters are either selling themselves short, undercutting the entire enterprise, or overtly sabotaging their colleagues. Yes, this very much includes the individual who holds the most positional authority, Scranton Branch Manager Michael Scott.

Unfortunately, many of these same things are taking place in your office, and at your desk, every single day as well. Just in less entertaining and, hopefully, less dramatic fashion.

As I did in the two entries on Personal Boundaries, I will outline a few key considerations for each aspect of Professional Boundaries, and offer some important questions and actions to consider to improve your practice in this domain. Before we dive in, however, I will start by acknowledging that your position in your workplace will very much color the way you understand and interpret what I have to say about professional boundaries in all four aspects. This is both, I believe, correct and very important to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who do not hold positional authority (i.e. we are not anyone’s “boss” or “supervisor”) in our professional lives. If this describes your situation, then my best advice would be that you consider the following points in light of yourself as your own “boss,” because, yes, you are your own boss, first and foremost. No one else determines your thoughts, attitudes, and actions more than, or before, you do.

Temporal Professional Boundaries can be easily found in a few high-frequency work situations: meetings, tasks/projects (whether done in a “team” or on one’s own), and so-called spontaneous interactions. With meetings, whether you are the one calling them or simply being called to them, it is important to have real clarity on your relationship to meetings and time.

If you are the one who sets meetings, do you set them to start, last, and end, with deliberate attention to questions of time? Do you set team/office meetings to start at a time that can work as well as possible for as many team members as possible? This is especially important as in-office schedules become increasingly fluid and flexible for more and more workers. Even more important, especially for bosses, do you start AND END work gatherings on time? If not, what excuse(s) are your favorite(s)? Keep in mind, if an excuse becomes the norm, it’s no longer much of an excuse.

If you are a meeting participant, do you get to meetings on time (in your seat and ready to engage at least one to two minutes before the appointed meeting time)? Do you linger chatting with co-workers, or even your supervisor/boss, even after the meeting has ended? Perhaps you only tend to hang back and talk further when there are obvious and important reasons to do so, but it’s worth asking whether this is always, or often, the case. If it is, it’s also worth wondering why. What work might you be avoiding by hanging around after the “real” meeting has dispersed?

Within meetings, as a meeting leader do you manage time well, or do you let discussion, and even digression, rule the day? Do you provide an agenda (with or without time blocks)? Is it realistic? Do you follow it? As a meeting participant, do you make timely contributions to group discussions or meeting leader questions? Do you pay attention to for how long you tend to talk and seek to limit yourself accordingly, or do you find that others often end up cutting you off? If your boss is the one who often cuts you off, this is possibly a sign that you need to reconsider your approach. Perhaps you should consider limiting yourself to what you can say with just one breath (meaning, if you have to stop to take a breath, it’s also time to stop talking) each time you go to make a contribution. If this technique doesn’t encourage you to think before you open your mouth, maybe it will at least get you back to the gym more often…

NOTE: I am not addressing emergency work meetings here. I understand that there are periods in most any workplace where outside events dictate when meetings must start, end, how they “should” be run, and how long they must last. Those just are what they are. But, when we are in the normal course of things, we often fall into a kind of automaticity with the way we behave in and around meetings that can create at least as many problems as it solves, if not more.

Kinetic Professional Boundaries are fairly straightforward. Pay attention to how you carry yourself physically in different situations (e.g. while sitting alone at your work station, while sitting in meetings, when entering your boss’s or another colleague’s work area). Do you pay attention to your posture? Sitting up straight, but still comfortably, not only creates a better impression of you in others’ eyes, it can also have a positive impact on your own energy and engagement levels. If you’re not convinced that simple body movements can effect internal changes, don’t just take my word for it: https://news.osu.edu/nodding-or-shaking-your-head-may-even-influence-your-own-thoughts-study-finds/

One other thing to pay attention to, especially if you hold positional authority at work, is whether or not you deliberately and consistently mirror other people’s body position and language. For example, if you approach an employee who is sitting down, do you look for an opportunity to also sit before you begin talking to them? If you are a subordinate, if your boss is sitting when you encounter him or her, look for an opportunity to be seated as well, asking “permission” if necessary. This is also effective, and almost certainly appreciated, when engaging with colleagues. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can, and often should, do things physically to increase connection and engagement on cognitive and affective levels.

Resource recommendations (I don’t necessarily 100% agree with everything in these additional readings, but only reading, or recommending, things with which we agree may not be a best practice after all…):

Tips for leaders to run better meetings: https://www.inc.com/partners-in-leadership/4-ways-to-run-better-meetings-and-transform-your-culture.html

Strategies and techniques for making more meaningful contributions: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/04/how-to-get-heard-in-meetings-deep-breaths-superhero-poses-and-owning-bossy

Different meeting participant roles and functions: http://projectmanagementhacks.com/8-ways-to-contribute-to-meetings/

Come back later this week for part two on Professional Boundaries, the cognitive and interpersonal. Until then, check out Mat’s recent post on the complexity of problem solving and different problem “types.