Interacting together harmoniously with others at work, day after day, is easier if we let the people we work with know something about us. Something, but obviously, not everything. There are boundaries, and those boundaries are not the same for everyone. Boundaries are personal. For example, if your work group has a happy-birthday-cupcake custom, everyone who is willing to disclose their birthday date is honored with a birthday cupcake bearing a single candle, and a bunch of folks singing a happy birthday tune. Most people are comfortable disclosing their birthdays. In a workplace that has such a custom, disclosing your birthday makes for fun for all.Disclosing one's age is another matter. Some people might be comfortable disclosing their ages. Some are not. Personal boundaries for birthdays are different from personal boundaries for ages.
Boundaries Sometimes, only after a personal boundary
is violated do we realize a boundary was thereare personal. At times, we can feel pressure to permit violation of our personal boundaries. And sometimes, only after a personal boundary is violated do we realize a boundary was there. Knowing the hows and whys of your own personal boundaries is a lifetime project.
Fortunately, there is a framework that's helpful for discovering personal boundaries: what Virginia Satir called our "Five Freedoms." [Satir 1991]
The Five Freedoms of Virginia Satir
Satir expressed these five freedoms succinctly as follows below. Following each freedom, quoted in her words, I offer my own interpretation of its connection to personal boundaries. For concreteness, I use examples from a typical knowledge-work project setting.
- "The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was or will be."
- A senior manager (S) insists that the deadline for our project is tight but achievable. Actually it will require outrageous sacrifices of personal time over the next three months, and cancelling planned vacations. By insisting that the deadline is achievable, S is infringing my freedom to see and hear what is here, thereby violating a boundary that's part of my birthright as a human.
- "The freedom to say what one feels and thinks, instead of what one should."
- One of my teammates (T) has objected to the killing hours that will be required to meet S's impossibly tight deadline. When S (a senior manager) attacks T and then reassigns T to unpleasant duty, S is trying to control what we on the team say about what we feel or think about the schedule. S is violating a boundary that's part of my birthright as a human.
- "The freedom to feel what one feels, instead of what one should."
- After T (one of my teammates) was punished and reassigned, the atmosphere among the remaining team members was decidedly sad and fearful. S called me to his office for a "chat." When S insisted that I was "too sensitive, and I had better grow a thicker hide," S was trying to control whether I have feelings about the way T was treated. S was violating a boundary that's part of my birthright as a human.
- "The freedom to ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission."
- When I struggle to meet the deadline using only the resources and time offered by S, I'm allowing S to infringe my freedom to ask for what I want. In that way I'm allowing S to violate a boundary that's part of my birthright as a human.
- "The freedom to take risks in one's own behalf, instead of choosing to be only 'secure' and not rocking the boat."
- I work hard to meet S's deadline, even though I've thought of another objective that would benefit the organization far more and much sooner. When I withhold my idea because I fear the possible consequences of offending S by putting my idea forward, I'm failing to take a risk on my own behalf. By allowing S to infringe my freedom to take such risks, I'm accepting a violation of a boundary that's part of my birthright as a human.
These five examples are everyday illustrations of Satir's deep truths about freedoms we all have just because we are people. She called them freedoms, but many view them from a slightly different angle as personal boundaries. My own preference is to call them freedoms. The term boundary evokes constraint, while the term freedom evokes liberty. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- OODA is a model of decision making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
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- In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects,
"That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work,
and how can the respondent escape the trap?
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases,
which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought
than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection
of phrases and images to avoid.
- Flattery and Its Perils
- Flattery is a tool of manipulation. When skillfully employed, it's difficult to distinguish from praise
or admiration. When we confuse flattery with praise, we are in peril.
- Virtual Interviews: I
- The pandemic has made face-to-face job interviews less important. Although understanding the psychology
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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