Broken Boundaries? Finding Balance Between Yes and No.

Broken Boundaries - People Development Network
Broken Boundaries - People Development Network

As a leader, when is it acceptable to let things slide? When do you reprimand and when do you allow mistakes to happen? What makes it right for people to behave in ways that contradict the values of an organization? How many times can they make the same mistake when it harms the organization before you as leader react and respond?

These were the questions I’ve been pondering in a struggle to find the balance between forgiveness and acceptance. Twice within a single day, I’ve had total strangers violate my privacy and cross my boundaries. This upset me, but what upset me more was how this reminded me of the continuous struggle I have with my relationship with my own family when it comes to boundaries.

Broken boundaries

There were no boundaries in my childhood home. I was taught that it is unacceptable to have a sense of self or assert my own desires. All that mattered was how my parents felt and what they wanted. I learned that saying no was wrong, even if it was at my own expense.

This pattern continued to play out in all areas of my life, with me unable to say no and assert my personal boundaries. In my personal life, I was unable to say no to friends. At work, I was unable to say no to my bosses. It literally took a burn-out after always saying yes to the ever increasing demands of my boss before I realized how dysfunctional this was.

After the burn-out and epiphany that my needs actually do matter, I practiced saying no to everything and everyone for a while. It was empowering in a way, but it also left me feeling excluded. Clearly, always saying no was not the answer, just as always saying yes. I had to search for more balance.

Finding balance between Yes and No

Having been to the extreme side of “yes” as well as the extreme side of “no”, here is what I’ve found valuable in guiding my decisions and reactions when it comes to asserting boundaries.

1. Be clear on your values

When you don’t know what your values are, it’s not possible to assert a boundary. Thus, it’s very important that you spend time determining what you truly value in your interactions with other people.

Boundaries are effectively the perimeter of a value. For one person, it might be acceptable to wait half an hour for someone to arrive at an appointment. For another, 5 minutes is ample time to allow for the environmental influences that might cause you to be late.

What is the margin of error you are willing to accept? Set yourself a target for each value, much like you would set a target weight or bank balance. You might not always meet the target, but it will tell you how close or far you are from what is important to you.

2. The sooner you assert a boundary, the better

You don’t suddenly wake up obese one day and mostly, you don’t one day unexpectedly become indebted. Usually, it is a gradual slide. So gradual, that you don’t even notice the difference until it’s so obvious that you can’t ignore it anymore.

The same principle applies to boundaries. When you let unacceptable behavior slide just once, you are demonstrating that it is acceptable. The next time it happens makes it just a little bit harder to assert the boundary, the next time a little harder still, and before you realize it’s become a habit and change becomes close to impossible.

Whenever someone crosses a boundary, let them know it’s unacceptable right away. Don’t wait.

It might be a subtle frown or a gentle assertion with a comment, or it might be a more serious discussion depending on the importance to you and how well you know the person.

Most people won’t even realize they’ve crossed a boundary and will gratefully accept the subtle feedback.  Some outliers will, however, keep pushing the same boundary-ignoring the more subtle signs. It is with these boundary-pushers that you need to be extra clear and extra strict. They have never learned to accept no as an answer, just like I never knew how to say no. They will keep pushing for the yes which inevitably comes provided they push hard enough.

3. Be consistent in your behavior

There is nothing more confusing than one day getting a certain result and the next day another based on the same behavior. We are pattern finding machines. When we’ve figured out the pattern, we accept it and move on. When we don’t find the pattern, though, it’s intriguing and we keep trying different options until we figure it out. That’s why slot machines are s addictive.

When asserting your boundaries, be consistent in when you say yes and when you say no. Be clear on why you sometimes don’t behave in a consistent manner and what causes you to say yes in some cases and no in others.

For example, as a rule, it’s not acceptable to answer phone calls during meetings. Yet, when you know a team member is expecting an urgent call due to a child or parent being ill, it would be cruel not to allow it. Set the expectations at the start of the meeting and make sure to explain why this exception was allowed.

4. Have a defined mechanism to deal with violations

We are social beings. Most people and I dare say all people, want to be included in the group. They violate boundaries either because they don’t know about the boundary, or don’t understand when a boundary is violated and when not.

In a large organization with many diverse people and cultures, what is acceptable to one might not be acceptable to another and it is easy for people to get confused as to what the rules of the game are.

Defining a mechanism to deal with violations enables people to learn from the experience. The sense of safety and trust also improves when people know that it’s acceptable to fail at times and how it is handled.

5. Forgive failures

The best apology is changed behavior and most people will immediately adapt their behavior when they become aware that they have violated a boundary. All you have to do is allow them to demonstrate it, which means you have to forgive them and let them try again.

Yet, sometimes the other person don’t see why the violation was not acceptable or don’t agree with your perspective and will continue to violate your boundaries. In these cases, it’s hard to find a physical reconciliation, yet it’s still possible to forgive.

Forgiveness is personal to each person. You don’t need an interaction with the other person to forgive them and you don’t need to continue the relationship as a token of your forgiveness. Forgiving someone entails freeing yourself from the experience after extracting the lesson. It doesn’t mean that the other person has changed, it only means that you have changed.

Whether the relationship continues or not, search for the lesson and forgive the failures.


Strong leader, strong boundaries.  Weak leader, weak boundaries.

Only you know your boundaries and only you can assert them.  Asserting boundaries are essential to provide a safe and productive workspace.  To become a strong leader with strong boundaries, it doesn’t mean you have to be hard and follow rules strictly, it means you are clear on your values.

Image by Tyler Pruitt courtesy

Karin Dames

Karin Dames

Productivity coach at funficient
With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Karin specializes in helping teams get unstuck, innovate, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and gamestorming as tools for process improvement. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.
Karin Dames


A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Making happy workplaces with technology, gamification, yoga and anything agile.
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Karin Dames