Great relationships at work involve openness and transparency, not to mention warmth and empathy. But being a strong leader also means knowing when to draw a line in the sand--properly set boundaries are essential to both policy enforcement and everyday productivity.
Setting these boundaries requires tact, which you can ensure by following a few key points.
1. Recognize your right to request.
One of the things that makes boundaries work (or not) is the amount of authority that comes across in the request--if you come across as timid or unsure of what you deserve, the other person will decide your rights for you.
Acknowledge to yourself that you are entitled to quiet, fair treatment, a stress-free environment, or whatever other reasonable thing you want. Then assert that right with both confidence and politeness, without regret or guilt.
2. Express what is permissible.
A common mistake in boundary setting is to simply say no, "It's not OK to...," or "I don't want you to" without giving the other person clarity on what is acceptable. When this happens, your listener can lose a sense of control, which can make them defensive and more likely to challenge the boundary you're trying to set.
Present your listener with unambiguous options, such as, "It's really not working for me to get so many texts from you, but I'd really appreciate an email or call at the end of the day for nonurgent items so I can address all your points. Which of those would you prefer?"
3. Give a reason.
For people to follow through on a behavior, they typically need to understand the "why" behind what you want them to do. Offer a rationale for the rule you're going to enforce, such as "I'm asking you to come to my office between 1 and 2 p.m. because most of my important calls come after that, and I'd like to give both you and the callers my full attention."
Ideally, you'll also paint a picture of the overall goal, such as, "If I can give those callers my attention better, we'll hit our quota more easily for the month."
Importantly, giving a reason forces you to set your boundary with logic, not hot emotion. Wait until your feelings are in check before having your boundary discussion.
4. Keep it simple.
This applies not just to the requests, which should be made individually, but also to the language in each boundary. The more direct and easy to understand you are in what you say, the harder it is for your listener to claim you were unclear.
5. Offer assistance.
Even if your listener understands your position and genuinely wants to comply with your boundary, habits are hard to break. It also can be difficult to feel motivated to change behaviors if the new behaviors seem like only work or extra effort. Ask what you can do to make the request easier to stick to, or present a few things you're willing to do to remove hurdles and stress.
6. Say thank you.
While the need for the boundary or the fact you're "right" might be obvious to you, the fact is that setting a boundary is asking someone else not only to respect you, but to change what they are doing for your benefit. Saying thank you for that respect and effort to change demonstrates that you know relationships are a give-and-take affair, that you similarly see who they are, and that you are willing to honor them with at least a basic level of reciprocity.
Boundaries at work don't need to separate you from others. In fact, drawn well, they can enhance the relationships you have. If you go through these guidelines while doing your best to grasp how your listener views the situation, your ability to communicate limits will be one of the strongest assets in your leadership toolbox.