Work Relationships Need Attention, Too


Shula Melamed

Emotional wellness coach at Ginger. MA in Psychology and MPH in sociomedical sciences. Passions include building better relationships, resilience, and overall wellbeing

Work Relationships Need Attention, Too

When we talk about improving relationships, typically personal relationships — our romantic partners, friends, and family — are the ones that come to mind. Yet, with the average American spending 40–60 hours a week working, it’s clear that our relationships with the people we work with make up a big part of our lives. Those relationships can have more influence on us than we realize, even when those interactions occur on Zoom, Slack, and email.

A common challenge faced by many of the individuals that I coach is navigating and managing relationships at work — and more often than not, the solution is setting clear boundaries. In a recent Headway post, my colleague, Ashleigh Nicole, defines boundaries as the structures needed for a person to feel safe, secure, respected, individual, and cared for in a relationship.

At work, however, boundaries take on a whole other layer of significance. Our boundaries directly impact success. They can affect work-life balance, teamwork, collaboration, confidence, ability to receive feedback, and more. I often ask members that I coach at Ginger a series of questions to gauge how porous or rigid their boundaries are.

Individuals with porous boundaries with their coworkers often have a certain constellation of personality characteristics that make them more of a “people-pleaser” or someone who depends on external validation to feel secure at work. This can at times drive them to take on too many responsibilities, become highly sensitive to feedback or constructive criticism, and be more at risk for stress and burnout.

On the other side of the spectrum are rigid boundaries. These are boundaries that are so firm they prevent people from connecting, negotiating, and collaborating. Folks whose boundaries are more rigid may struggle with requesting help, trying new ways to do things, and hearing feedback without getting defensive. Working with others, who may have different working styles, requires flexibility. Having rigid boundaries, without flexibility, can hold someone back from growing in their career.

If you’re curious to find out where your boundaries fall on the spectrum of porous to rigid, here are three questions to consider. I recommend taking about 15–20 minutes to journal using these questions as prompts. When answering, it can be helpful to use a specific incident or situation in which you allow(ed) your boundaries to be crossed or a time when you crossed a coworker’s boundaries.

1. Do you put the needs of others before your own?

Individuals with more porous boundaries often put the needs of others before their own. In the workplace, this can surface as having difficulty saying no to requests, even when you already have a lot on your plate. This can also show up as being “always-on” and available to respond to email, Slack, and work messages, even during your time off. By reflecting on this question, you can realistically identify what you are expected to do in your role at work, where your limits are, and what you can do to set better boundaries in these types of situations.

2. Do you resent other people for being so inconsiderate or needy?

Resentment is an emotion that can tell you a lot about how you’re feeling in terms of whether your boundaries might have been crossed. If your answer to the above question is “Yes!” take a moment to reflect on the last time you felt this. Come up with ways in which you could have more clearly communicated your boundaries (if you didn’t). Or consider whether there were opportunities for you to be flexible with your boundaries, without losing them.

3. If someone criticizes you, do you consider that they might be right, even if you know deep down they aren’t? Or do you ignore feedback altogether?

This question is extremely important because it can highlight whether porous boundaries are allowing your self-esteem to be impacted by the perspectives of others. Alternatively, you may have had primarily negative experiences with feedback and have developed rigid boundaries that prevent you from hearing or benefitting from the point-of-view of others. Either way, this question can help you reflect on where your boundaries are now and where you’d like them to be.

Do these prompts make you think of other boundary keeping issues you might have? Where might it serve you to strengthen these boundaries? Where might you need to let go a little bit?

As you process these questions, you may even find yourself wanting extra support or clarity. I highly recommend both working with a coach and journaling, both of which can strengthen any boundary work you are doing. The great thing about boundaries is that once you know where they are, you can play with them, push them a little bit, and find it easier to communicate about them with others.