Being the boss is tough. With all the information available on how to motivate and engage employees, without being a micro-manager or a bully, it can be a bit confusing trying to determine what exactly an effective boss is like today. A big part of becoming a good boss is understanding and creating healthy boundaries.

What is a boundary? A boundary is an imaginary line that exists between you and your employees. It marks the difference between your organizational role, authority, responsibility and status, etc. and theirs. And by virtue of this, it defines acceptable behaviors in a given situation, and it gives you permission to tell others what to do and what to expect of them as they do it.

How do you know if you have unhealthy boundaries with employees? If your boundaries at work are non-existent or too loose, you’re probably the type who is very concerned about whether your employees like you. That is, your primary desire, motivation, and basis for your decision-making centers on making your employees like you. And because you want them to like you, you believe if you take care of them and even protect them, they will like you more and work that much harder. After all, it’s all about relationships, right?

Yes, it is about relationships – healthy ones – with good boundaries. Boundaries that recognize and communicate that you are not your employees’ equal at work and that it’s your job to tell them what to do and to provide them information about why they need to do it and how well they did it. If you are overly concerned with being liked, you’re focusing on you and not on the company’s goals and interests (which is the job of management). (This is called co-dependence or “letting the tail wag the dog”.) In short, you are not fulfilling your role as boss and are bending over backwards too far.

If you find yourself walking on eggshells around employees in the pursuit of their happiness and at the expense of the company’s interests . . . . If you balk at requiring/asking your employees to do the not so fun parts of their jobs . . . . If you are avoiding a conversation about performance or conduct issues because you’re afraid you might upset an employee. . . . here are 4 things you can do to create healthier boss/employee boundaries:

  • First, consciously step into your role as boss with no apologies. This means, you are the “decider”. It’s your job to set expectations and sometimes to have difficult conversations: that’s what you’re paid to do. You don’t need to be a jerk about it. Just be as clear as possible. Your employees already expect this by virtue of your role as the boss. The authority and permission to tell others what to do is built into the boss/employee relationship. (Repeat: you don’t need to be a jerk about it.) They’re waiting for it because even they know when they are pushing boundaries. They are probably surprised you haven’t already addressed certain issues with them.
  •  Second, strive to be respected instead of liked. You might be able to do both, but garnering respect first and foremost forms the basis of a healthy boss/employee relationship. To gain respect, you must be firm, fair, and consistent, so your employees know what to expect of you on a regular basis. And yes, your employees won’t like everything you hold them accountable to, but they’ll understand it and expect it.
  • Third, don’t actively seek to be friends with your employees. They might be great people, but to maintain a healthy leader/employee boundary, you shouldn’t see each other tipsy at happy hour or know minute details of your current or past relationships. Concentrate on the work  with occasional superficial chit chat.
  • Fourth, get better at handling conflict and hard conversations. Being the boss means you will deal with situations where most people don’t want to change the way they do things. Conflict abounds. When you shy away from conflict, you’re trading the possibility of something new and full of potential, for staying stuck in the present situation that you may think is safe but which reflects your inability to adapt and your lack of faith in others to do the same.

To better cope with the discomfort of being the boss, find peers – other managers, business owners, CEOs – to commiserate and celebrate with. It can be lonely being in charge, and these peers can relate to the trials and tribulations of being a boss and offer advice and support.

Your employees were hired to accomplish work in your company. They don’t mind doing the job – they applied for it. And healthy, defined boundaries will create clarity, making your work together easier and more productive.

Beth Stratman

Beth Stratman is an author, speaker, consultant, podcast host and one of the instructors at Curious Mondo. Check one of Beth’s training on Creating a Distraction Proof Workplace

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