Boundaries vs. Ultimatums: What’s Better For Your Career?

Boundaries at work

You likely know the meanings of ‘boundaries’ and ‘ultimatums’, but you might not know precisely how they differ. And in a workplace, knowing that difference can be key to you getting ahead, as well as to maintaining your mental health and job satisfaction.

So, what is the difference between the two? According to Amanda Gordon, Workplace Psychologist at job search platform Indeed, it lies in the way each is used to establish expectations in the workplace.

“If done effectively, setting boundaries can reduce stress, promote work-life balance and enhance productivity and performance,” says Gordon.

Boundaries at work
Image: Getty Images

What Is a Work Boundary?

“Work boundaries are self-imposed limits or guidelines that individuals set to manage their work-life effectively,” Gordon says. “Work ultimatums are demands or requirements presented to others to seek specific actions or changes.”

Work boundaries can help us to maintain a healthy work-life balance, prevent burnout and manage stress. Common work boundaries include not checking work e-mails or answering work calls outside your set office hours and scheduling meeting-free days to focus solely on work or admin.

When healthy and reasonable limits are established on our work hours, availability and workload, we create space for relaxation, personal time and rejuvenation, thereby reducing anxiety and increasing well-being. Work boundaries also provide space to focus on your personal life and hobbies outside of work, often leading to increased job satisfaction and purpose.

“Boundaries need to be firm and clear, in order to serve their purpose, but they should also be flexible and adjustable where necessary,” says Gordon. “Understanding when you may be more flexible with your boundaries to support workplace goals or colleagues can lead to empowerment, allowing you to achieve on your own terms.”

What Is a Work Ultimatum?

A work ultimatum, on the other hand, is a more assertive and rigid approach used by an individual to demand specific actions or outcomes from others in the workplace, says Gordon. It’s usually presented as a final condition with limited room for negotiation or compromise.

“Work ultimatums are often used when an employee or employer feels that their needs or expectations are not being met, and they want to enforce a change or resolution,” says Gordon.

“Refusing to work with a colleague unless they formally apologise, saying you will resign if you’re not offered a pay rise or not collaborating on an idea if you’re not able to lead the project are all workplace ultimatums.”

Unlike boundaries, which can be changed if the situation requires it, and preferably at the instigation of the person who established the boundary, Gordon says that ultimatums are: meet the requirement or there are consequences.

How Can I Set Work Boundaries?

Focus on the Essentials

It’s important not to overwhelm yourself and others with an excessive number of restrictions or rules around how and when people can interact with you, says Gordon. Instead, focus on a few key boundaries that are essential to your wellbeing and work effectiveness.

“Setting too many boundaries leaves you at risk of straining your professional relationships, reducing your productivity, and isolating yourself from colleagues,” she says.

Be Upfront

Next is to communicate openly with your team about your boundaries, ensuring they understand the reasons behind them, says Gordon.

“Let your team know that you need to leave the office on time to pick up a child, or attend a regular appointment and block out the time in your calendar so it’s clear when you are and are not available,” she says.

Remain Flexible

“Be open to occasional adjustments in your boundaries to accommodate team needs,” says Gordon. “If an urgent project arises, be willing to stay a bit later than usual to help or offer to support the team at a time that works for you.”

Offer a Solution

When declining a task, it can be helpful to show your commitment to solving the problem by offering an alternative solution, says Gordon.

“If you can’t take on an additional project due to your current workload, confirming when you will have the capacity to get started, or reviewing opportunities to re-prioritise the work that you already have on your desk shows that you’re still committed to a positive outcome for the team,” she says.

“If you can’t attend a meeting at a specific time, suggest some alternative times that might work better for everyone.”

Meet Your Deadlines

If you commit to completing a task by a certain time, ensure you deliver on this, says Gordon. While you may have a hard stop at the end of the working day, showing your commitment to meeting all project deadlines is essential.

“Many of us work in collaboration with our colleagues and not in silos, so don’t dump work on your colleagues just because you have to run out the door,” she says. “Boundaries should support you in delivering your work, not become an excuse for reduced productivity.”

Offer Support

“Showing genuine interest in your colleagues and in their success is important to building personal trust and overall morale in the workplace,” Gordon says.

“Offering to help your colleagues on their tasks, or to provide feedback on projects, even if it falls outside of your direct responsibilities shows that you care about making a positive contribution to your workplace and care about overall outcomes.”

Respect Other People’s Boundaries

Finally, Gordon says to remember you’re not the only person with boundaries.

“Always be attentive and acknowledge the boundaries set by your colleagues, demonstrating empathy and understanding of their needs,” she says. “If a colleague prefers not to be contacted after work hours, refrain from sending work-related messages during their personal time and respect their wish for a healthy work-life balance.”

Related: Ever Wondered What Career Coaches Do (and If You Need or Should Be One)?

Related: Career Cushioning Could Help Keep You in a Job, So How Do You Do It?

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.