Setting Social Boundaries at Work

Do you have a manager that loves to talk and gets very personal when they do? Or maybe a colleague that’s an oversharer? This behaviour could have started during the pandemic as managers and colleagues attempted to connect with staff and coworkers across time and space and Zoom, and without realising, started sharing too much. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable hearing what their manager or colleagues are prepared to share around the office and some staff don’t care for watercooler chit-chat and just want to get the job done and “log off”. This does not mean a lack of respect for your manager or colleagues but it can often cause significant distractions from you and your colleagues being productive, and effective in the workplace. So, if this is a problem for you, how can you handle this?

Many people get frustrated by the behaviour of others. and very few, effectively address the situation through a conversation.

Master these three skills to help you have this challenging conversation that can alleviate this for you.


It can be scary to raise a concern with someone in a position of power or authority. Why? Because we worry that what we say will make the other person get defensive, feel criticised, and maybe even feel attacked. And we have enough life experience to know that when someone feels attacked, they may attack back. Our managers, with their positional power, can have a big impact on our lives, so it is rational to want to stay in their good books. We have been taught that calling out their behaviour is the opposite of staying in their good books.

This is the point at which we make a fool’s choice. We can either speak up or stay in our manager’s good books; we can’t do both. There is no way to be both honest and respectful, both candid and kind, right?

Wrong! That thinking is a false choice. Of course you can be both honest and kind. In fact, being honest is kind. Being candid is respectful. So, refuse the fool’s choice and accept that the way to resolution is through conversation.


If your concern is that your boss might feel unsafe and become defensive, you need to plan to make it safe. Psychological safety in a conversation comes down to one thing: intent. Why will your manager think you are having this conversation with them?

Safety is not determined by your intent, but by the other person’s perception of your intent. Because of that, we must do two things:

  1. Have a good intent
  2. Share our good intent

To check your own intent, ask yourself: Why am I talking about this? What do I really want out of this conversation? Is it such a problem if your intent is for your manager or colleague to stop sharing all their personal information, and to stop being as chatty, so that you can get your work done?

But don’t stop there. That is just your good intent for yourself. What about your good intent for your manager? What is it you want them to gain from this conversation? Maybe it is: I want my boss to know that they can trust me to speak up when I have a concern.

And what do you want for the relationship?

I want us to be able to work well together. I want us to be able to be candid with each other.

Once you have gotten clear on your good intent, you need to share it. Out loud. With words.

The thing that will create safety for your manager in that conversation is to start by sharing your good intent. It might sound like:

“Hey, there is something I want to talk to you about. I have a small concern and I wanted to address it with you before it gets any bigger, so that we can be successful together.”

However you express yourself, you need to find a way to both have good intent and then share it.


Once you have laid a foundation of good intent, build on this by clearly and concisely sharing what you are experiencing. For most of us, often out of nervousness, the instinct is to say too much. Don’t. In as few sentences as possible, describe the problem. It might sound like:

“You are very personable, and I have noticed that you connect well with people and build relationships by sharing what is going on in your life.

The downside of it is, for me, that I’m not being as productive as I can be and often not getting my work done. I’m having to work late at night sometimes just to finish. While I enjoy our conversations and I enjoy getting to know you so well, these conversations are taking me away from the focus that I’d like to have on my work.

My hope would be that we can find a way to continue to have a good, friendly, positive relationship and that I can protect my work time. I’d love to figure out something that works for both of us.”

Again, this is just an example of how one could approach this conversation. You need to find your own words to describe your experience. And if you do, if you share that good intent, create the safe space for the conversation, and stay focused on your goals of a positive relationship with your manager and get your work done during work hours, you can find your way through this conversation.

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