Respecting Boundaries at Work Leads to Better Relationships

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are boundaries important to establish at work? How does respecting boundaries enhance trust and build relationships?

Creating trust at work requires establishing and respecting boundaries. Radical candor doesn’t mean being completely open about every single thing, just being truly honest and empathetic.

Keep reading to understand the importance of respecting boundaries for creating a culture of candor.

Respecting Boundaries to Build Effective Relationships

The second part of building effective relationships with your team members is respecting their boundaries. Respecting boundaries is not a one-size-fits-all practice. As a leader, you’ll have to navigate what “boundaries” look like for each person on your team—everyone will react differently to the idea of bringing their whole selves to work and sharing aspects of their personal lives with you. The good news is, this gets easier over time, as your relationships strengthen and you understand your employee’s needs more deeply. 

It’s challenging to simultaneously get to know your employees and understand their integrated work-life selves, while respecting the boundaries they may set around their personal information—there are 6 guidelines that can help you navigate the process: 

  • You have to build trust
  • It might not be best to share values
  • Stay open to new perspectives
  • Use physical touch where appropriate
  • Tune into your own emotions
  • Figure out how to deal with others’ emotions

Guideline 1: You Have to Build Trust

Trust-building is a long, slow process of repeatedly asking questions about your employee and showing that you are trustworthy by engaging with their responses. You can’t rush it by immediately asking deeply personal questions, which will likely scare them off. On the other hand, you can’t sit back and wait for trust to just happen—as the leader, you have to take the first step of asking questions. 

The best way to get into the trust-building process is to regularly spend one-on-one time with your employees. Let them decide the topic of discussion so they can talk about whatever they need to talk about, and take responsibility for asking the questions. 

Guideline 2: It Might Not Be Best to Share Values

Many organizations tout the benefits of sharing values among team members, thinking that doing so will help colleagues better understand and communicate with one another, and act with integrity. However, this might not be the best way to build relationships, for several reasons:

  • Refining and practicing your personal values is a lifelong process, which gets minimized by a short value-sharing exercise. 
  • While some people might find it helpful to name their values aloud, others might find it impossible to pack the meaning of their values into a simple expression.
  • Some people might feel that their values are too private to be discussed with colleagues. Their colleagues might disagree with their values, which only goes toward breaking down relationships, not building them. 

You don’t need to ask about or share values with your employees—but you do need to know what your personal values are, and depend on them to help you show up to conversations and tough work in a way that aligns with who you are. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of Dare to Lead to learn more about how your values can help you show up to tough conversations with integrity.) 

Guideline 3: Stay Open to New Perspectives

If your team members share their values or experiences with you, your job as a leader is to stay open to their perspective. This practice of basic respect is at the center of strong work relationships. Your “personal care” has to extend to everyone, even those who come from a different background, have a different perspective of the world, or have beliefs you don’t understand. If you mandate that people have beliefs or values similar to yours, or that they hide their conflicting beliefs and values before you’re interested in building a relationship with them, your work relationships will be weak, artificial, and void of trust. 

Beyond accepting the diverse perspectives of your employees, you can further strengthen your relationships by making a perceptible effort to create a workplace that honors their diverse perspectives. This might look like organizing a workshop on discussing race in the workplace, or a review of exclusive language in your organization’s written materials. 

Guideline 4: Use Physical Touch While Respecting Boundaries

Physical touch is often considered inappropriate in the workplace, but sometimes it can go a long way toward strengthening your relationships by showing that you care personally. If one of your employees experiences a death in the family, or announces that they’re having a baby, a professionally distant handshake won’t demonstrate that you care about them. A hug, on the other hand, certainly would.

However, when it comes to physical touch, you have to be attuned to your employees’ needs—ask them what they prefer. Don’t make an assumption they might be uncomfortable with. Some of your employees will be comfortable with hugging and gladly accept it, but others will prefer not to be hugged. It’s important to find another way to include these employees in expressions of care, such as a reassuring shoulder squeeze, or a note left on their desk. It’s okay to ask what will work for them. 

Guideline 5: Tune Into Your Own Emotions

If you create a work culture where everyone is expected to bring their whole selves to work, it’s important to be attuned to the emotions your whole self brings to work. This is important when you’re carrying negative emotions, because emotions spread easily, especially when you’re the boss and everyone is tuned in to how you’re feeling. 

You have to find a way to keep your emotions from getting in everyone’s way, without suppressing or trying to ignore them, which could cause them to manifest in a way that’s not in your control and chips away at trust—such as snapping at someone for asking for your help. Be candid about what’s going on, and assure your team that they’re not to blame for your bad mood. You could say something like, “I’m exhausted because I stayed up all night with a sick kid, so I’m really irritable today. I’m trying my best not to snap at anyone, but if I do, please know it’s nothing against you or your work.”

Guideline 6: Respecting Boundaries While Dealing With Others’ Emotions

When you’re building relationships with your team—especially when asking your team to bring their whole selves to work, and when challenging directly alongside caring personally—you’ll inevitably be exposed to others’ emotions. The most important rule in these situations is: don’t try to control, manipulate, or prevent others’ emotions. Instead, your focus should be on engaging with their emotions and reacting with empathy. There are seven methods that can help you react to others’ emotions with empathy, rather than with defensive or controlling behavior:

  • Recognize emotions: Don’t pretend that your employees’ emotional reactions aren’t happening, or try to assuage them by saying something like, “Don’t take it personally.” Instead, try opening up a fuller conversation about it by saying something like, “I’m sensing that you’re frustrated. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • Don’t tell people how to feel: Telling people how to feel (or not feel) will usually have the opposite effect on them—if you say to your employee, “Don’t be angry,” they’ll likely get even angrier. 
  • Don’t approach with guilt: When failures or setbacks happen, it’s natural that people will be upset. If you feel personal guilt for others’ negative emotions, you’ll likely react defensively. You have to remember that their feelings aren’t your fault, and they’re not necessarily directed at you. Otherwise, you’ll focus on your own guilty feelings instead of on their negative emotions that need attention.
  • Ask questions: Don’t tell someone what they’re feeling. Instead, keep asking questions about their emotional reaction until you arrive at the root of the problem together. 
  • Build in little breaks: Having bottles of water or tissues on hand to offer to an upset employee gives them a moment to regain their composure if needed.
  • Go for a walk: Tough conversations are best on their feet—emotions feel less intense in an open space, and when you are walking and looking in the same direction, the conversation tends to feel more collaborative than combative.
  • Take a break if you need to: If you’re truly uncomfortable with someone’s emotional reaction, instead of telling them how to feel or ignoring them, you can take some space for yourself. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry you’re so angry about the way that presentation went. I’m going to grab you a cup of coffee and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” If you’re still feeling uncomfortable after your break, give yourself some space. You can say, “I’d like to press pause on this conversation. I know it’s important to you, so we will come back to it, but I can’t have this conversation right now.” Be forgiving to yourself for needing space, but recognize the importance of coming back to the conversation when you’re ready—your employee needs to see that you’re good on your word when it comes to addressing issues that are important to them.
Respecting Boundaries at Work Leads to Better Relationships

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kim Scott's "Radical Candor" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Radical Candor summary:

  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
  • Why relationships are an essential part of successful leadership
  • How to create a strong team culture that delivers better results

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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