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Maintaining Healthy Relationships in the Workplace

A guide to setting boundaries


Most of us have been there, either as a spectator or participant. I’m talking about inappropriate workplace relationships. It’s an issue plaguing most large companies and small businesses alike.

How do we create and maintain healthy boundaries in an environment we often spend more time in than we do at home? Why are we so vulnerable to making the wrong decisions with coworkers? How do we maintain our integrity in a world sorely lacking its own?

First, we must recognize we aren’t born with knowledge of how to build and sustain a healthy relationship with anyone. Many of us go through life trying unsuccessfully to figure this out. For my part, I wasn’t raised in a home with strong familial relations. My family did the best they could with the tools they had. Problem was, their toolbox was pretty small.

As I grew up, I watched other people having what looked like a normal childhood, married parents…the “normal” as it was defined in the 70’s and 80’s. I knew my childhood was much different, but had no idea how it would affect me as an adult.

Striking out on my own at age 18, I thought I ruled the world. I had just enough of everything to get in trouble, enough ego, enough money, enough stuff and a lack of morals I couldn’t see. I also had a hole in my soul no amount of therapy could fix.

After a few years of making my life a complete mess, my parents suggested I join the Navy. My brother had, so why shouldn’t I? It was in this environment my appalling lack of life skills showed up in living color.

The military of the late 80’s and early 90’s is not the military you know today. Enforcing rules against sexual harassment, sensitivity training classes and the often bizarre moral code they use today were not a part of my experience. It was a free-for-all, married, dating, whatever. The transient nature of the military made it easier to engage in behavior that might not have happened otherwise, or at least not so openly.

I was a quick study and an excellent manipulator back then. I learned quickly how to get ahead. Much of my leadership engaged in the same wanton behavior as did those of us lower on the totem pole.

I paid a steep price for my bad behavior. I hurt people, including myself. I learned there were no boundaries in my workplace, not really. What I learned in the military is the same thing young adults learn on social media, watching anime and most things on Netflix, cable and You Tube.

The world is a beautiful place, if you are mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy. To the young me, who was not healthy in any way, it was a jungle. Everything was a competition and I wanted to win. Problem was, what I won was NOT something I wanted. It came at a heavy cost. I traded my self-worth for momentary pleasure.

How then, did I get from there to here? How did I go from a young woman with no clue to a now mature woman, with her own company, who for over a decade managed a wide range of employee/customer/vendor relationships? How did I become a dependable Army wife and mom, married to the same man for 25 years? I’d like to say it was easy, but it was not.

My growth came from pain, bad decisions, immoral behavior and a God who showed up exactly when I needed Him. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. How do I know He showed up at the perfect time? I know because I asked Him to come. He was already there, I just couldn’t sense Him until I’d had enough of myself.

Hearing someone else’s story only gives you an example, so how do you navigate your way through relationships, both at work and in other areas of your life? What are the practical tools you can use to create healthy partnerships?

First, find an accountability partner. You can choose a friend, pastor, coach or mentor. You can’t make good decisions in a vacuum. Look for someone who has what you want, in relationships, personality and spirituality. The people who have what we want can often best help us because we connect with them. I have a few close friends and a mentor, and I stay in contact withthem.

Next, sit down and create a plan. You can brainstorm, create a mind map, a list, whatever comes natural to you. With yourself in the middle, begin thinking about and writing down what you consider to be appropriate and inappropriate behavior, communication and contact. It’s better to have a plan before walking into a situation than come up with one on the fly.

If you are already in a workplace environment or even a school setting, read their guidelines for behavior. Compare theirs with yours. Doing so will insure you are aligned with the rules you already work under, or you may find that where you are isn’t the right fit for you. Go over your findings with your accountability partner.

Your plan becomes your guide for setting healthy boundaries. The thing about boundaries is people will push up against them daily. Because so many of us run around with none, we don’t always know how to deal with and respect those who do. Boundaries scare people who can’t understand them.

Respect for yourself and others can keep you out of potentially dangerous situations. When I was a young adult, I had no idea what self-respect was, nor did I respect the relationships other people were already in. When I respect myself and you, I am aware of the potential damage inappropriate behavior can cause.

It’s important for us to keep our own personal relationships healthy. When I was young adult, it was too easy for me to let thoughts creep in that undermined my commitment to my partner. My justification was usually, “my significant other doesn’t understand me the way (this person) at work does.” In every case, I was wrong in that assumption.

Over time I learned to read the warning signs that popped up any time I was near the line.

  1. Proximity. Does someone have a tendency to invade your personal space? Do you invade others’ spaces? If it does happen, what emotions are evoked?
  2. Motives. When you engage another person, check your motives. For example, if you find yourself spending more time with one coworker than you do all the rest, ask yourself why? What was the thought and/or feeling behind the action? If you aren’t sure, this is the perfect time to call your accountability partner. Notice I said CALL, not text. It’s much easier to fool someone via text than on the phone.
  3. Mind. If you begin to realize you spend a lot of your time thinking about a particular person at work, be mindful of how often it happens, what you are thinking about and run it by your mentor. Our minds can easily trick us, making it easy to let something slide by or by minimize a situation. Having an advisor at this point is crucial!

These are just a few indicators of boundary overreach. Having an objective person in your life, one who knows you well, to whom you regularly report, can deeply affect how you react to awkward situations and how you can avoid them completely with time.

In this age of Harvey Weinstein, and others like him, its more important than ever to get this right. Weinstein’s life is a huge mess, and it all started with an inappropriate workplace relationship. The pain his behavior caused is only beginning to show. The damage to his wife and children must be severe. The women he hurt are now beginning a cycle of healing. All of it is due to bad choices, repeated over time.

As long as we are willing to be transparent, thoughtful and professional in our approach, we can have the best of both worlds! We live fulfilled lives with a myriad of healthy professional and personal relationships. We are more productive because we do not waste our energy on negative people and situations. We collectively take one giant step toward living a life we love. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

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