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Bridges and Boundaries 101

© 2024 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, March/April issue, 2024

I was at a Girls in Aviation Day event last September when two enthusiastic women approached me. “We heard you speak at the WAI conference,” one said with a big smile. “And it was SO helpful! We now tell everyone in our chapter, ‘It’s about Bridges and Boundaries! Bridges and Boundaries!’”


Evidently, my summary framing of applying Core Strength effectively in a workplace resonated with them. So it’s probably worth expanding on a bit, here. (I’m also giving an educational session on the subject at this year’s WAI conference).


Working as any kind of minority in a majority-culture workplace is challenging. If we try too hard to fit in with the majority, we can lose our-selves, or grow resentful or burned out from the effort. So to “succeed,” we have to find a way to remain grounded in ourselves while still working effectively with colleagues whose assumptions, norms, and a host of other attitudes and ways of interacting differ from ours. And, it should be said, without being undermined by those who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t mind seeing us fail.


That’s a tall order. Achieving it requires a delicate balancing act: building strong bridges with everyone we can, while simultaneously drawing protective boundaries against those who wish us harm. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds.


The first step is assessing which group (bridges or boundaries) a particular person falls into. As we interact with colleagues, we need to assess their character, integrity, maturity, and intentions. People don’t always show their true colors at first. A person doesn’t need to share our politics, worldview, or lifestyle values in order to make a good bridge-building partner. But they have to be trustworthy and well-meaning at the core. Do they seem honest? Or evasive and manipulative? Do they seem insecure; always self-aggrandizing, defensive, or blaming? Is this a person concerned only with themselves? Or are they capable of respect and concern for others? If we watch how people act around others, we can usually figure those answers out.


The second step is bridge-building. How do you do that? First, be someone others want to build a bridge with. Which is to say: trustworthy and capable, doing your best, and taking responsibility for your actions. 

Next, reach out to potential partners and start putting the bricks and mortar of a bridge in place. Bricks are the elements of commonality we find with others. That’s the starting point. But to find those potential connection points, we have to be genuinely interested in learning about others. Not just asking them about their lives, but really listening to what they say in response. Focusing on someone else’s story and allowing them space to share without judgment can be challenging. But if people sense you really want to hear what they have to say, they’re much more likely to share. Pass over points of disagreement. You’re looking for what you might have in common. If you look hard enough, you’ll find something. Then focus on that. Put those bricks in place.


To build a really strong bridge, however, you need to surround the bricks with mortar. And mortar consists of showing respect and compassion for things you don’t have in common, but which matter to the person on the other side of the bridge. I can’t stress enough how powerful that kind of acceptance and respect is in opening doors and generating cooperation and support—which pays off when we need to draw boundaries. Sometimes, in fact, colleagues we’ve built bridges with will step in and draw protective boundaries for us when they see someone acting badly. But even if we have to ask for support, it’s easier to do if we’ve built a bridge we can walk across to ask the favor.


It would take far more than one column to cover all that boundary-drawing entails. Navigating conflict is always trickier than building positive relationships. But here are a few guiding principles. First: boundaries aren’t about getting someone else to fundamentally change. They’re just about limiting harmful behavior around you, or its impact on you. Boundary-drawing also works best when you can keep your emotions out of it. That’s easier said than done, but remember: if someone’s behavior is out of line, it’s not about you. Even if they say it is. Don’t get sucked into someone else’s rabbit hole of grievances, insecurities, or issues. Stay professional and rational.


Next, assess the kind of boundary you need to draw. Broadly speaking, there are three types: direct, formal, and informal. Direct boundaries are the ones you draw yourself, privately and one-on-one with another person. Whenever possible, start with this approach. Many people will welcome the chance to solve conflicts without public embarrassment. Don’t lecture. Just explain the boundary and ask them, politely but firmly, to respect it, whether it’s asking someone to refrain from particular language or jokes around you, or explaining behavior that felt inappropriate or made you uncomfortable, and asking it not be repeated. If you’re not sure the transgression was intentional, start by saying you know they might not have meant harm. If it felt intentional, be firmer. After one colleague made blatant, squirm-inducing passes at me on a work trip, I wrote him a note saying I respected his talent but calling out the specific behavior I felt was inappropriate and saying I expected to never encounter behavior like that again. I didn’t.


If that approach can’t or doesn’t work, you have two options, depending on the seriousness of the behavior. If the problem is actionable harassment or discrimination, you need to draw a formal boundary. Document details or evidence of what happened and share it with either your boss or the perpetrator’s boss. They can’t address it if they don’t know about it. But you also might want to start developing an exit/transfer strategy, regardless of whether you go to their boss or HR. It helps keep the stress and fear at bay, even if you don’t end up having to use it.  

The third type of boundary, where bridges become most important, is for transgressions that are harmful but not actionable, including what’s become known as “microaggressions.” Direct boundary-drawing can also be helpful here, but if you’ve built strong bridges with male colleagues and mentors/managers, those people can be informal but powerful advocates and force-multipliers for you. You can talk to them about what you’re experiencing, and ask for their advice or assistance. Or ask them to help you advocate for a policy change. The only reason I survived and thrived as the first woman columnist at Flying magazine is that I had such staunch support from male colleagues and readers I’d built bridges with. I couldn’t have drawn all the boundaries I needed without them. Obviously, there’s a lot more to say on this subject (hence the session at the conference!). But visualizing the challenge as one of bridges and boundaries is a good starting point for an effective strategy and approach.  

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