A Great Pair: Empathy and Boundaries

Arela Simerson
5 min readMay 31, 2019


Balancing between empathy and self protection at work

There was a funny article in the Guardian this morning about Post-it wars. Someone’s cheese was being eaten from the office fridge and then the offended party used a Post-it to call the thief out, which then began a full Post-it war. We laugh at these classic office dramas but what about the more complicated or serious violations that happen at work?

Like that person who is always late to meetings, or that one that is constantly dominating the conversation with their personal agenda, those times when your manager takes credit for your work, when your colleague talks about you with another person instead of you directly.

Lacking reliable statistics, I’m guessing the above happens more often than stollen cheese.

I’ve written before about the real struggle of being able to talk to our bosses candidly. This struggle in communication also goes for our colleagues and often leads to negative assumptions about the other person’s intentions. Which unfortunately is sometimes true, not all intentions are positive.

Tech is getting world renown for its tendency towards toxic cultures.

We hear a lot about toxic tech work places but a less covered area is the inspiring trend of a focus on empathy and learning to be more inclusive and open minded. In many workplaces now, we are encouraged to assume good intentions. We try to find empathy through trying to understand the intentions of someone’s harmful behaviour towards us. Even if it isn’t always easy, due to the toxicity that we’ve experienced.

This is a difficult thing to balance; being empathetic, trying to understand someone else’s intentions, and at the same time still needing to defend ourselves against these slights at work.

So how do we keep our positive mindset, keep assuming the best and still protect ourselves?

Setting and Communicating Boundaries

Ok, so we’ve taken our happy selves to work, set our boundaries and then do our best to assume when others cross them that it wasn’t intentional. But then… there’s that one colleague. The one who says rude things at every meeting and when you call them out they apologise, but repeats the same cycle at least three times a day. You think to yourself, “Well, they said ‘sorry’ and I’m supposed to assume good intentions.” Or you think, “What a (insert expletive here), what’s their problem?”

We’ve all been here, faced with dealing with cheese thief or no-self-control-person. Frustrated and possibly burnt out by their repeated behaviour. Despite our best efforts and sometimes, sadly because of hierarchy, bias or privilege, we can’t seem to make them respect our boundaries. What do we do then?

Setting Consequences

There are many reasons that others don’t respect our boundaries. After our boundaries are crossed, we spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out why and how to define the consequences, or avoid the conflict. In my day to day interactions with people I hear constant bouts of assumptions. Like: ‘Oh, she’s sick again? Maybe she needs (insert trendy health opinion here)?” or “I can’t believe he did that, he must be really …”

We do this naturally, we are trying to understand the action, make sense of it and determine how strongly we respond. For instance, if someone steals our cheese, maybe we’ll create some passive aggressive Post-its and be irritated for some weeks but if someone steals our wallet, we are really violated, the damage is much higher and we pursue legal justice.

The downside is, that this process of dissecting the intentions of others isn’t a great help at work. Look at it this way, if we don’t even clearly know our own intentions, then guessing at someone else’s is a major time and energy drain. Trying to judge the intentions to then respond with the most reasonable sense of justice is consuming!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the intentions are behind the repeated boundary crossing behaviour, it maters that you are negatively affected and your work and personal life suffers.

This leads me to the main point for today; instead of spending time analysing the reason someone crosses your lines and determining the consequences, take that time to focus on what you need for yourself in order to be in a better way and finding the best solutions to help you achieve that.

For instance, if the no-self-control-person keeps up their antics, resist the urge to stress and get into thinking “why do they keep doing that to me?”. Instead, make a record of each offence and regularly report them to your boss, possibly changing teams and isolating them from your projects or break time. Or if cheese thief keeps up with the mouse like sneak, skip the Post-it notes and instead start storing your personal food in a zipped up bag with your name on the package. Your energy is better spent on taking care of you and your work than stressing about someone else.

Managers and leadership, take note here, it is your responsibility to ensure that your employees’ boundaries are being respected.

If you want to have an innovative, inclusive and open environment, you need to take care of the psychological safety of the people. Therefore, it is directly your responsibility, over that of the employee who is being violated, to step in and intervene when you see boundaries being crossed. So when you’re in the meetings and no-self-control-person says their usual destructive comment, you take them aside and tell them stop. If they doesn’t, three times and it’s an official warning.

Of course, it’s not so easy, some of us are driven by the sense of justice and fairness. On the other side, many people are conflict adverse and find it much less intimidating to put passive aggressive notes on empty cheese containers than call people out. But know this, boundaries are your human right and you have every reason to ask for them to be respected. If that is too big of a bite to swallow, then consider instead, how the amount of energy you spend on worrying, dodging and managing issues, directly affects your productivity and wellness. In addition to leading to toxic work environments.

For the ones of us who do in fact work in toxic environments or for bad bosses, I say to you the best work advise I’ve ever received.

Stop trying to break down the wall, you’re only hurting yourself bashing into it. Instead, find another path to move around the wall.

My empathies to the ones out there who have situations in which another path isn’t an option, I hope you have other colleagues and people in your life who can support you or help you take down that wall.