Episode #36: 5 Tips for Setting Boundaries at Work

Black-rimmed glasses on desk with calendar

Individuals, teams and organizations who operate within clear boundaries are more likely to thrive. Maybe you know how to use boundaries at work, but need a refresher. Maybe you never considered boundaries at work as an option for you or your team. In any case, this podcast explores 5 tips for implementing boundaries at work. Give one of these tips a try and let me know how it goes!

TRANSCRIPT

Intro

Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

Transcript

So in my work, it seems like boundaries is a word people have heard before, but they may have no idea how to actually use them. I FEEL YOU.

Today we are going to talk about boundaries at work!

In my first career, “no” was not an option and boundaries were non-existent. I spent my days bandied about by the priorities and demands of others. 

One of my “favorite” regular occurrences was when someone would send me an email and then walk into my office 5 minutes later . . . “Did you get my email? Um, yes, yes I did.” 

“Oh, you need that deal drafted in the next 45 minutes before you leave for a 2 week vacation? Oh, sure. I would be happy to drop everything so you can go to Mexico.” 

Now, this isn’t because the people I worked with were assholes. Really, for the most part, they weren’t. 

What I know now is that people who don’t have or understand boundaries don’t have or understand them for a very good reason--they never learned them. Which also likely means they grew up in a house or professional environment where there weren’t any boundaries. Sometimes we have to teach ourselves and others how to operate with boundaries in the workplace. 

Here are just a few examples of poor boundaries at work: 

  1. Checking or sending emails at all hours of the day and night, including weekends. 

  2. Demanding immediate attention for non-emergent problems. 

  3. Having a “priority” list of more than 3-5 things at any given time. 

  4. Interrupting someone who has communicated that they need to be uninterrupted and focused. 

  5. Making YOUR emergency SOMEONE ELSE’S emergency.

In my second career, my own lack of boundaries included things like this:

  1. Not leaving myself time in my calendar to each lunch

  2. Not scheduling school holidays or blocking national holidays on my calendar

  3. Adding commitments to my plate just because there was an empty spot on my calendar; without regard to whatever else was already on my plate. 

  4. Reading work emails right before bed.

  5. And keeping my phone (aka my work) within arm’s reach AT ALL TIMES.

One of the penultimate examples of my lack of boundaries is described in my blog post, “Hang up the phone and go get the baby.” that I am linking in this transcript.

Have you experienced poor boundaries at work? I bet you could tell me some stories!! If you are willing to share, shoot me a note over at [email protected]. I will not share them without your permission and I will never use your name without your permission.

Okay, I have done a great job of identifying the problem haven’t I?! 

Some of you have never attempted to practice boundaries at work, but somehow you know you need them. And others of you might be rolling your eyes right now and saying, “Yeah, I know what boundaries are and I would love to use them BUT--my boss, peer, coworker, team member etc. is INCORRIGIBLE. I have no hope of being able to implement and maintain boundaries in my workplace.”

Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean you cannot practice and role model healthy boundary setting in the workplace. 

P.S. If you are a leader, and you don’t have and practice good boundaries, guess what . . . you are giving your team the message that boundaries are not okay. And in a time when our well-being as organizations and humans is at significant risk from multiple health crises . . . THERE IS NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT to start working within boundaries. 

So, how do we practice boundary setting at work???? Here are some tips from my own experience and practice:

#1 Force yourself narrow your priority list to 3-5 things at a time. It is easy to let all of the to dos hold equal weight in our minds, and to allow our to do list to stretch into the 100s of tasks. But if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Every task is not of equal importance. Not every task has the same potential impact. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Which of these tasks is sucking my mental energy (and therefore needs to be done as soon as possible)? 

  2. Which of these tasks will have the most impact? 

  3. Which of these tasks will make other tasks easier? 

  4. Which of these tasks has a deadline?

  5. And which of these tasks is clearly and unequivocally linked to my current goals, metrics, accountabilities or deliverables? 

This one used to be SO HARD FOR ME, but it has gotten easier over time. Because of the way my brain works, I can see the potential impact of ALL OF THE THINGS, no matter how remote. And I used to want to pull every lever at once just to make sure we could say we had tried everything that could have made a difference. But that leaves you and your team feeling overwhelmed. Unless you have unlimited resources. And even if you do have unlimited resources, which is unlikely, pulling all of the levers at once (aka ascribing the same level of importance to everything is not an efficient or effective way to operate). 

#2 Delegate early and often. Not every task has to be done by you. Which are the tasks that you are uniquely suited for, fit squarely within your scope of responsibilities, and make an impact on your goals and metrics? Which tasks could be done by you but fall within someone else’s scope, unique skill set, or will consume bandwidth that you require for other priorities? Which tasks could be done by you but not right now

I learned to look at my list (and everything coming my way as a potential task or priority) through the lens of what only I could do compared to the things that others could do, often better and more efficiently than me. And, how could I avoid being the bottleneck for someone else?

Our tendency is to wait until there is a crisis, realize that something shouldn’t have been on our plate in the first place, and then hold onto it because we don’t want to create a problem for someone else since we waited until the last minute. To mitigate against this tendency, redirect, reassign or delegate tasks that do not need to live with you as soon as they hit your inbox. DON’T WAIT. 

#3 You don’t have to accept the monkey. I read a leadership article once that used a monkey metaphor. The concept was this . . . throughout the day, different people come to our door, or send us an email or leave us a message and they want to give us their monkey. Their “monkey” is the problem that they are currently grappling with. Instead of helping them with their monkey but making sure that the monkey stays with them, we humans and leaders can sometimes get caught taking everyone else’s monkeys on as our own. They walk out our door feeling lighter and by the end of the day, we have an office full of other people’s monkeys. We look around and say . . . well, I guess I won’t be going home on time like I planned, I am going to be cleaning up monkey poo all night!! When people come to us with a problem we can listen, be empathetic, let them process their way to a solution, give guidance if needed, and so on. But we don’t have to accept all the monkeys. Make sure that monkey goes back out the door with your commitment to support the person who is grappling with it!

#4 Ask clarifying questions and communicate limits. So what happens if someone asks you do to do something, but your plate is already full? In fact, you have about a dozen plates spinning already?! I used to just pick up the plate and start spinning it too. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When you find yourself overwhelmed, overcommitted or staring down another request for your time and attention, press the pause button. If possible, tell the person who has issued the request that you will need some time to get back to them (and tell them when you will get back to them). Sit down and make a list of everything that you are spinning. Ask yourself the prioritization questions listed under tip #1 and get clear on where this new request fits into the full landscape of your obligations. 

If you are talking to a peer, you might follow up with something like this:

“I am sorry I cannot take that on right now. Thank you for thinking of me.” 

No explanation. No soliloquy on how busy you are. Honestly, everyone is busy. And no one wants to hear how busy YOU are. They are too worried about how busy THEY are.

If it’s true, you might add: 

“If something else like this comes up in the future, I would love to have the opportunity to participate then.” 

If you are talking with a boss, you might follow up like this: 

“Boss Sally, I know you asked me to take care of xyz. Right now, I have prioritized abc, efg, and qrs. Is xyz a priority over one or all of these other tasks? If yes, where does it fit and how will the timeline or due date for the other tasks be shifted to reflect this new priority? If xyz is not a priority, let’s look at a timeline or due date that reflects its priority so we are on the same page.”

When I was a boss, I just wanted to be able to trust my team and to know that things I had assigned to others were going to be taken care of on an agreed upon timeline. I didn’t want to be surprised or caught off guard. I didn’t want to have to ask about it a bazillion times. And I wanted my people to tell me if there was a problem or obstacle that I had missed or forgotten. 

Yes, there is some work that is just non-negotiable, but often, work deadlines are malleable as long as people take the time to communicate with each other. 

#5 Keep LIFE and your well-being on your to do list, calendar, planning schedule at all times. Every time you say YES to something, you say NO to something else. I learned this important lesson from Samantha Lane, Founder of Origami Day. It never occurred to me before my crash and burn that saying YES came at a cost. I thought I was supposed to pile all the “YESSES” on my plate and keep going!! 

Well, it turns out that I said NO to one very important thing--my own mental and physical health and well being. At 47 years old I am still learning to put my body and well-being on my calendar BEFORE my work and other commitments. 

When we put all of our focus on performing at work, it is easy to forget that we are not actually automatons. We are human beings who need things like sleep, nutritious food, movement, nature and relationships in order to stay well and in order to do our best work. I am learning A LOT about implementing this concept in my own life through the work of Kate Northrup

One of the things we often don’t realize is that WE TRAIN OTHER PEOPLE HOW TO TREAT US. If we don’t draw and enforce boundaries, they are not going to enforce them for us. People are going to take as much as we will give. Not because they are unkind or selfish, but because we are all primarily focused on getting our own needs met most of the time. But the truth is that boundaries are good for EVERYONE! 

Just in case I need to remind you, burnout is incredibly expensive, both personally and professionally. Boundaries can help us prevent our own burnout and the burnout of others. And beyond prevention, individuals, teams and organizations who operate within clear boundaries are more likely to THRIVE. 

For those of us who are afraid or perhaps have been taught that boundaries are somehow unkind, I am linking an article in the transcript from Brene Brown titled “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.

I encourage you to pick ONE of the five tips that I have gone through in this episode and start to practice with it in your own life. I would love to hear how it goes!!

And I want to acknowledge that some organizations and leaders are not amenable to boundaries. They just aren’t. But you won’t know if you don’t try. It will take time and persistence, but learning to set and hold boundaries can be a game changer for you!! 

And if, after you have made consistent attempts to set and hold boundaries over time, you find that your workplace is not amenable, you have permission to seek a workplace that will honor reasonable boundaries. The truth is, that if your workplace or leader cannot adjust to reasonable boundaries, that is indicative of a culture that may no longer be a good fit for you.

Outtro

Thank you for listening. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content. If you write a review of the podcast, I would love to share it on air in a future episode.

I look forward to being back with you next time!