Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 38;   September 20, 2023: Personal Boundaries at Work

Personal Boundaries at Work


We often speak of setting boundaries at work — limitations on what we can reasonably ask of each other. We speak of them, but we don't always honor them. They can be easier to remember and honor if we regard them as freedoms rather than boundaries.

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.

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, and later ratified by the States. The Bill of Rights specifies a number of political freedoms, many of which overlap with Virginia Satir's Five Freedoms. Many thinkers have proposed enumerations of freedoms for various contexts. Search for "bill of rights" to find some of them. Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives.

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 there
are 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.

Last words

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Working Breaks in Meetings  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Satir 1991]
Virginia Satir, John Banmen, Jane Gerber and Maria Gomori. The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Palo Alto, California: Science & Behavior Books, 1991. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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