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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Col. John Boyd, U.S. Air Force, in a photo taken during his time as a fighter pilotOODA at Work
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.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
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?
Children playing a computer gameHigh 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.
Dante's Eighth Circle of HellFlattery 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.
A virtual interview underwayVirtual Interviews: I
The pandemic has made face-to-face job interviews less important. Although understanding the psychology of virtual interviews helps both interviewers and candidates, candidates would do well to use the virtual interview to demonstrate video presence.

See also Workplace Politics and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What a videoconference looks like when all participants have their cameras offComing 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.
Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006And 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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.