Four Steps To Better Professional Boundaries
In my past corporate experiences, I sacrificed many a boundary in the spirit of wanting to be seen as reliable, personal pride of a job well done, and (let’s be real) I was getting paid. These are all good things. However, these decisions were not without collateral damage: stilted boyfriends, passed over travel opportunities, and countless missed events.
The journey down this path can too easily become a downward spiral leading to burn-out, resentment, and bitterness. It’s no wonder that younger people have no qualms changing jobs every 2-3 years. In fact, some recruiters say it’s a red flag if you don’t.
But who has time to job search when you’re constantly being pulled into fires? This is where boundaries can help steady your course.
Here are four practical suggestions:
1. Know Where The Line Is
We can’t defend a boundary if we don’t know where it is. At work, this means making sure that you know what your job is. This can be more difficult than it sounds.
Especially when we first start a job, we are eager to just prove our presence and capability. People will take advantage of this. The antidote is to make sure every role or project you take on (1) fulfills the job that you were hired to do or (2) provides an experience that moves you toward your next career goal.
Another good exercise is to keep track of your time: list your tasks, approximate how many hours you spend on each, and then categorize the tasks according to the projects/teams/departments that benefit from your time.
With this data, you are in a better position to reflect on why you feel so tired at the end of the day. What is draining? Who is asking too much of you? Is that really your job?
You don’t have to show it to anybody, but it could be a good conversation starter next time you check in with your boss. It could be used as justification to hire some help to free up your time for more important initiatives.
2. Talk To Someone You Trust
Once you know where the line is, any crossing becomes more apparent. Nobody’s perfect and every situation is different. While staying flexible is a virtue in the office, be cautious when others’ reactions cause you to question the boundary. It’s natural.
Make sure you hedge against any knee-jerk decisions that you may come to regret later. The best way to do this is to talk to someone you trust.
In part, this is why I created Edittress. When mired in politics way above my paygrade, I felt there was nobody I could really trust or ask for practical advice. My friends were too biased on my side. Mentors were too distant or not available. So I created a social venture to fill this gap: an objective confidante when you need it most.
Whoever it is, make sure you find them outside of your workplace. You don’t have to do anything they say. As talk therapists know, it is simply the process of sharing that begins to ease the burden. Remember shame feeds on secrecy, silence, and judgment.
3. Consider The Alternative
In a word, negotiate. I hesitated to use this word explicitly because it conjures up images of haggling, used car salesmen, and lawyers. It doesn’t have to be that way.
During business school, we studied the famous negotiation technique of getting to yes. I found it a bit cheesy to be honest. But there is one lesson I constantly go back to: the “yes and…” technique.
When your boundaries have been busted, consider the proposal and ask yourself what would make you say yes to this request? For example: half-day Fridays, an extra vacation day, daycare reimbursement, or perhaps a change in title.
If the person asking something from you wants it bad enough, they may consider it. You won’t know unless you ask.
Or if your back is against the wall, the alternative could be recommending another resource like the intern chomping at the bit for more meaningful work.
The key here is to move beyond “yes and no” to find a way to work together that honors everybody involved.
4. Tolerate The Reactions
People will react. They may get angry or disappointed. They may lash out or talk behind your back. This is a human response to any kind of disruption.
“Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.’
Remind yourself that you are not responsible for their reaction. Your first responsibility is to take care of yourself and you are doing so with your boundaries.
With care and courage, I would encourage you to address the situation with them in a casual environment like the coffee station. Something as simple as “I know this puts you in a bind, but my boss…” may deflect some of the reaction.
This too shall pass. Ironically, they are most likely projecting their own lack of boundaries into the situation.
In work as in your personal life, you want to surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries.
This way you’ll know.