Establishing Social Boundaries at Work: An Introvert’s Guide

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Do you feel that your professional culture could be more geared to suit extroverts’ social needs rather than introverts’ needs? You know those times when you just want to revel in your zone, but people keep invading your space? You have no intention of being rude to your coworkers, but you are in work mode, not conversation mode.

In the same way, you may not want to do the weekly team lunches; perhaps bi-weekly or monthly is your speed. It’s nothing personal, but perhaps you would have more fun convening with your coworkers if the occasions were less frequent. So how can you propose that without sounding like you are pushing your teammates away?

Setting social boundaries is always a delicate project, but it seems to have particularly high stakes in the workplace. Your productivity is enhanced by the professional relationships you cultivate. You don’t want to be perceived as standoffish, snobby, or rude.

It’s okay to need what you need. You have the right to request your space. Here’s how:

Own Who You Are and What You Need
This is a positive message, so market it in a positive way. It’s great to be an introvert, an ambivert, your team’s token reflector. Psychotherapist Janet Zinn notes: “Introverts are excellent at attention to details, staying on task, and focusing on work. They are also great at keeping their eye on the goal. When they are not in quiet settings, they won’t be able to work to their strengths … having introverts as part of the team makes everyone look good.”

Institutions of higher education tend to be open to a spectrum of working styles and personalities, which is a wonderful perk of working in higher ed. Invite your manager into your issue. He or she wants you to feel comfortable and well-positioned for success.

Perhaps you can suggest that the team take on this topic in your next retreat or staff meeting. Strategizing ways to work and communicate more productively is always a helpful exercise for a team. Perhaps each team member can use a personality assessment tool to identify their personality types and to discuss how they best collaborate and communicate.

Making this a team issue (which it is) gets you out of the hot seat and it gives the whole team a chance to talk about how they can work more productively together, which will help with cohesion.

Provide Easy Guidelines
Zinn points out that “it’s imperative that introverts have quiet spaces in which they can focus … they aren’t as productive in loud or social settings.” If you are an introvert, know that your needs are valid. They are also directly tied to your ability to work productively. Requesting what you need doesn’t make you anti-social or high maintenance.

But how you communicate your needs is important. Zinn recommends that if you are new to a team, establish expectations early on. Zinn suggests an introduction such as:

“I wanted to warn you in advance that I’m not rude, I’m just an introvert. I tend to keep to myself to get my work done. So don’t take it personally if I’m not so social. That’s just how I am.”

Then that person can refer to that introduction in the future. “Remember when I mentioned I’m an introvert? It’s nothing personal…”

Sharing a couple of your preferences with your team can also help you get what you need. If you have the chance to talk about work style preferences, that would be a great opportunity to make a point about your needs such as this:

“I put my headphones on because music helps me focus and get the most out of my crunch time. So when you see me with headphones, a stop by probably isn’t the best way to communicate with me at that moment, but if you send me an email inviting me to connect, I’ll be happy to come and visit you as soon as I am out of crunch-time mode.”

Your coworkers likely share your aim of wanting to work harmoniously together. It’s not your responsibility to communicate like your coworkers do, nor is it their responsibility to communicate like you do. But it’s everybody’s responsibility to work productively together and to compromise to find a productive middle ground. That doesn’t happen randomly. It takes good communication and teamwork.

Be Honest About After Work Events
Lunches and happy hours can be great team-builders. But these can also be overdone. If you think that’s happening, you can point it out.

If your manager is the event organizer, it’s easy enough to talk with him or her and express that you think it would be helpful to dial these back. Your manager is trying to foster good cohesion on the team, and if his or her efforts are falling short of that goal, then your manager will likely be receptive to your feedback.

Again, you want to make sure you deliver the feedback in a polite and professional manner: “I love our team, but I feel that a weekly lunch is a bit difficult to keep up with. I think it would be more fun if we did it monthly. It would be more special that way.”

You don’t have to feel guilty for stating what you need. You don’t owe your team your social presence. But it does help with team-building and cohesion. It’s within your rights to do this on your own terms as long as you communicate clearly and politely.

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