Using Boss Power Responsibly: Why Boundaries Are Important

For the last five nights, I’ve watched past episodes of the award-winning television series Damages, which stars Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, a high-powered, conniving, manipulative lawyer who wins millions and gets justice by doing some pretty dirty stuff others wouldn’t even dream of doing.

The show ran from 2007 through 2012 and lasted five seasons; I’ve just started Season 4. Honestly, after 40 episodes of murderous, double-crossing, thieving criminals, Hewes doesn’t seem quite the miserable human being as in the show’s first few airings.

However, she’s still a lousy boss.

Don’t step any closer, please

I’m a huge believer in the importance of boundaries in life and especially at work.

Boundaries distinguish you from me. They mark where one person ends and another begins. And it’s good to know and respect boundaries, because when we don’t, we start to want things of people we have no business wanting, and sometimes, when others don’t care for what we want, we decide to force (bully) or trick (manipulate) them into caring.

A boss with boundary issues is a real pain, regularly forcing a showdown between her will and yours. What a drag.

And that’s Patty Hewes, with her mind games and her lies. It makes for fascinating television, but what a bitch to live through. (Trust me on this.)

But boundary issues don’t have to be Emmy-award winning dramatic to be problematic.

Out on FMLA? How dare she!

I had lunch with a friend last week, and she told me about the co-worker who had surgery and is on medical leave. The friend’s boss is very angry about that. (So inconvenient, you know?) Fortunately for this employee, she doesn’t have to experience her boss’s anger right now, but I’ve worked with employees who did.

And what’s their crime, exactly? Exercising their right to unpaid leave to attend to their health? That’s sickening.

Not quite as sickening but equally troubling is the manager who wants to give a bad reference (or withhold a good reference) to the high-performing employee who quit without notice — or perhaps quit with standard notice — but either way the manager is put out that the employee quit, period.

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Listen, it’s fine to feel what you feel, but it’s not fine to look for ways to punish someone for living his life. Here’s a news flash boss — you don’t own your employee’s health or his career. If you believe otherwise, you’ve got a boundary issue, IMHO.

Patty Hewes on Damages has major boundary issues, and that’s why she treats her employees’ time, talents, and ambition as though they’re hers. (Hewes once said of her protégé, Ellen Parsons, on whom she ordered a hit in Season 1, “Everything that she has now is because of me, and she still wants more.” What the …?)

Using boss power responsibly

Bosses with significant boundary issues may get results, but their relationships suffer greatly in the process. Simply put, most people don’t appreciate the constant conflict that’s created when someone expects someone else to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, however she wants.

This is someone who appears to view you as an extension of her, instead of the separate being that is you.

If you’re a boss, watch the boundaries, please. You’ve got the power, so exercise it responsibly.

Watch what you say to your subordinates and how you say it. Be respectful and appreciative of their time. Don’t take too much for granted. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you have to be bossy, and it sure doesn’t mean it’s okay to overstep your bounds, and yes, that’s entirely possible to do.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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