Boundaries at Work

By Tom Henschel

Nicole was a client I had coached years before. She and her family were now living in Asia, where she had a plum assignment on a large team.

She reached out to me via email with sad news: she was getting a divorce. Many people throughout the company knew her husband. She worried about the ripples and wrote for advice. After sharing the news, her email went on:

I’m torn about what to tell people, Tom. Or whether to tell them at all. Everyone has known us for so long.

To not tell people feels like lying. But you know what? I don’t want to talk about it here. It’s not really anyone’s business here. Not even senior leadership. And they’re the ones who are going to have their feelings hurt because I didn’t “confide” in them.

You know what else freaks me out a little? God forbid I cry one day. But, holy hell, Tom, I’m going to be a mess. Well, no, I won’t. Not all the time. But at some point, I’m sure I will!

I worry that leadership will think I can’t handle the tough jobs. But I want the tough jobs. That’s why I’m here. But they do tend to make decisions about how fit you are for work challenges based on what they know.

So how would you advise me?

After expressing my concern, and reminding her that I did not know the senior leadership except from a distance, I wrote:

The leadership would get their feelings hurt because you didn’t confide in them? Really? OK. Let’s suppose that’s true. If so, that’s about them, their inflated sense of importance and plain old crappy boundaries. Why is that a concern for you? Would they punish you for not telling them? I hope not!

Let’s suppose you tell people this: “I want to let you know I am going through a difficult time outside of work.” No details. Nothing about a divorce. Just generic. Would that feel safe? You are under no obligation to fill in any details at all. This is your information. You will tell it when the time is right for you.

If you worry they might view you as fragile, tell them in no uncertain terms that you are not. This is a situation where “AND” is your friend. You might say:

“I am 100% committed to the work here. I am eager for challenges and ready to stretch. It is not my intention to bring my personal problems to work. AND, at the same time, I may have some bad days. That does not mean I can’t handle the work.”

About crying. Yes, you might. If that happens in the workplace, excuse yourself, pull yourself together and get back in the game as quickly as you can. That’s your job.

One precaution you can take against being overwhelmed by feelings at work is to have an outlet for your feelings outside of work. A friend. A network. Something. Don’t isolate yourself. If you’ve ever experienced deep grief, you know healing is unpredictable and non-linear. Have help. And compassion for yourself.

Finally, Nicole, people will want to be helpful. They will say jaw-droppingly hurtful things with the intention of being helpful. They will give advice which is bone-headed. (For example, this entire email, perhaps!) They will tell you stories – that have no relation to your situation! – about their own catastrophic divorces and their bastard ex-husbands. They will tell you all the ways you could be doing better. They will do all those things. You can’t stop that.

But you can control how you react or respond. None of what they say is about you. Smile and thank them. Then run to your support people outside of work and have another glass of wine!

Months went by. Then she wrote:

“Thank you” doesn’t begin to express it, Tom. I’ve read and reread your email. I’ve derived a lot of strength and comfort from it. In particular, the last paragraph about how people are going to try to be helpful by telling me things, and how all I have to do is smile and say thank you. And I do. And have another glass of wine!



To start a coaching relationship with Tom so that you can receive useful emails like that if/when you need then, schedule a conversation with him today.