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Material Boundaries

In Seven Types of Boundaries at Work, we looked at the seven different kinds of boundaries you may need at work (good title, no?) and what physical boundaries are, and how to enforce them.

Then, in Conversational Boundaries, we looked at what you can do when people repeatedly talk about things that make you uncomfortable.

Today we'll dig into another kind of boundary you might experience at work, depending on what you do and where you do it -- material boundaries.

Material Boundaries – To make your own financial or stuff-related decisions

Material boundaries are about your money and possessions. Material boundaries set limits on what you will share, the conditions under which you share it, and with whom.

For example, you may be ok lending your car to a family member, but not to a coworker. Or maybe you're comfortable letting your Aunt Carla stay at your apartment when you're out of town, but not renting it out on Airbnb. Or maybe it's ok if give your best friend $50 but not ok if she takes it out of your purse without asking. (We all have different relationships with our best friends, after all.)

Similarly, a material boundary can be clarifying the condition in which you want the borrowed item to be returned. So no matter who borrows the car, it should be returned with a full tank of gas. And Aunt Carla should leave the house as clean as she found it. And your best friend should give you back the $50 next time she goes to the bank. (Or opens Venmo.)

Material boundaries are violated when someone takes, touches, or damages your possessions without permission, or when you experience pressure to give or lend your possessions.

These violations can look like:

  • Asking for money

  • Rummaging through your desk or bag without asking

  • Using your computer

  • Returning a shared item in worse condition and not offering to pay for repairs

  • Using a shared item for longer than the agreed-on time

I had a roommate once who used to eat my food out of the refrigerator without asking. I didn't really mind it except when she finished something -- like leaving me no milk for coffee the next day or not enough cereal in the box to fill a bowl. I didn't have the skills at the time to stand up to her and enforce my boundary (I was so young and scared then) but ever since then I've been very clear with anyone who comes to my house -- eat whatever you want, but please let me know when you finish something. Or, if there's something I need for a recipe or that I want to eat myself, I let other people know.

I find that material boundaries aren't often enforced at work but instead we develop a culture of passive-aggressive note-writing. The notes at my last office were magnificent -- I remember one time when there was a cake in the fridge, and the note on it said "soggy nachos - do not eat." And there was a woman who walked around the office looking for conference room food. The notes on those tables often went so far as to say, "NOT FOR ANYONE BUT THE MEETING. THIS INCLUDES YOU." This is not actual boundary setting. It's boundary theatre.

If you're aware of who is messing with your stuff it's much easier and more efficient (albeit more awkward) to address that person directly. Notes rarely solve the problem. If you're not sure who it is, it's probably a good idea to take extra steps to safeguard your stuff, putting your flip chart markers in a locked drawer, or labeling your remote control with your name.

Thinking about your work life, what's one material boundary you could put in place that would make things better?

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