Question: I thought I was following networking best practices taught to us as we left the military, but when I asked a colleague about their recent surgery, I was told I'd crossed a boundary. What did I do wrong?
Answer: One of the most overlooked areas of networking is the topic of professional boundaries. These limitations are often as vague as the name sounds. Whose boundaries? When do they come into play? How can you know you're about to cross one? What do you do if you've already stepped over one?
Personal boundaries are sometimes easier to understand. We set boundaries around what we feel is appropriate, customary, normal or acceptable. Are you comfortable having someone hold the door open for you when you enter a room? Are you OK with someone sitting very close to you? How do you react when your private trauma is mentioned in a group setting? Our sense of personal boundaries gives us a range of what's OK and what's not -- for us.
Professional boundaries, on the other hand, tend to follow societal, cultural or industry norms. For example, it's crossing a professional boundary to inquire about someone's sexual preference, plans to have a family or views on political events at work. These are considered not to be appropriate topics for the workplace.
Taken further, there are guidelines regarding professional boundaries, such as:
• A nurse is advised not to "cross the lines" in discussing certain non-relevant issues with a patient.
• A financial adviser who inquires whether the client's marriage is stable (under the guise of sound financial planning but who really wants to ask the client out) is seen as crossing a boundary.
• The manager who places a hand on the knee of a subordinate, even just to emphasize their compassion for them, is certainly headed for reprimand.
Professional boundaries exist to maintain appropriateness at work so everyone can be comfortable. Unfortunately, many of these boundaries are implicit rather than written, and this can be problematic for someone coming from a military culture where standards and processes are more clearly articulated.
Here are ways to navigate professional boundaries:
1. Check in with Yourself.
If you suspect you've crossed someone's professional line, ask yourself how you feel about what you've done. Do you suspect you may have inadvertently infringed? Are you clear about your own professional boundaries? What sense do you have that you've done wrong?
2. Watch for Clues.
Did the other person suddenly shift their body language? Did their eyes get wide and surprised, did their arms suddenly cross in front of them and did they move away from you physically? Body language can be an indicator the other person is uncomfortable or unsure, sometimes meaning you've hit a nerve or crossed a professional boundary.
3. Speak with Intention.
To avoid crossing boundaries, become focused with what you say and get familiar with topics that are deemed "safe." For example, at a business networking event, it's fine to discuss things that aren't deemed private or confidential, such as your current projects, new developments at the company and happenings in your industry.
But if you're networking with someone in the finance department and you ask them a personal tax question, that could be perceived as crossing a professional line.
4. Check in with the Other Person.
As this may be new behavior for you, it's fine to check in if you sense you may have offended or troubled the other person. Gently inquiring, "did my question upset you?" or "I sense I may have made you uncomfortable. Is this true?" will reveal whether you're in the clear or not.
Before assuming someone has crossed your boundary, clarify what's happened. If your recent divorce is common knowledge, and you've shared those details with others on the team, yet a new colleague brings it up to you, are you certain you see this as a crossed boundary?
Perhaps this person is looking to find connection with you and knows you're open about your private life. When in doubt, clarify. Ask questions to understand their intent, motivation and the reasoning for the question.
If you've crossed a boundary, own it and apologize. Resist the temptation to justify your actions ("Everyone else gossips about your divorce!") and own your behavior. The quickest way to move past an infraction is to take accountability, genuinely apologize and avoid repeating the behavior.
Professional boundaries can be tricky. This may be one area of your transition that can't be spelled out in a series of "how to" steps. By being mindful, alert and sensitive to the needs of others (and your own) you'll learn how to navigate these complex, and often unwritten, rules of the civilian sector.
The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication, and reputation risk management.
A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.
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