If setting boundaries is as easy as 5-step articles suggest, why do we struggle so much to set them? The reality for most of us is that it takes more than a list of “how to’s” to activate and sustain boundaries.
Virtually every client says they wish they would have (set boundaries) sooner. Karen Rubin, Executive Coach
Karen has worked with many clients who felt that setting boundaries would be the end of their career advancement, but this isn’t the case. It’s a common inflection point in an individual’s career, and after creating and executing on strategies to set/maintain boundaries, virtually every client says they wish they had done it sooner.
Organizations, leaders and managers set a culture around what is expected, what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds in terms of our day-to-day behavior. Do you have to be always-on? Respond immediately? Is it ok to block out time to do your own heads-down work? Can you duck out for personal commitments during the day? Can you say “no” to “opportunities” or non-promotable tasks (e.g., organize the social event)?
Lots can add to the complexity. For example, variability – inconsistency from day-to-day on what’s acceptable, from manager to manager, or what some people “get away with” compared to others. What is spoken and what is unspoken. What is said and what is done.
Then there’s the personal challenge of bucking the trend. It’s hard to be the one that challenges the expectations or breaks the norms. To say “no” when you feel like everyone else is saying “yes” can be difficult. In fact, research shows it can be fraught with risk, for women especially.
And of course, there are our own voices in our heads defining expectations. Sometimes it’s our own identity that says “I’ve been successful because I’ve always ‘done it all'”. Or, “my success has come from my responsiveness” or “I’m the one people can rely on to get things done…even if they drop it on me as I’m heading out the door.” Or maybe our identity is connected to being “the pleaser” – the one who never rocks the boat, is always there with a helpful “sure, I can do that.”
Setting boundaries begins with a shift in mindset, helped by a set of “how to’s.” We start with the mindset shifts:
What To Do (Bites)
Start here: know your worth
If you don’t really have a handle on your worth to the organization, or closer to home, your manager, it’s harder to muster the courage to set boundaries. Clearly defining what you bring and what your value is, not only feeds your own confidence but it also guides where to invest your time for greatest impact (and therefore where to set boundaries). Without that knowledge you are left more vulnerable to always saying “yes” and in turn never saying “no,” literally or through your actions. Saying “no” requires some authority, which doesn’t have to come from title. It can come from confidence in your own worth.
Factor in what the organization values
You will find that there are certain things that really matter – that are valued and rewarded day-to-day that give you clues on what you may need to accept and where it’s okay to set boundaries. For example, is there cultural pride in working around the clock? Does this vary by seniority? Without this knowledge, you may, by not setting boundaries, be investing energy in areas that don’t really matter.
If you’re not sure what’s valued, pay attention to who is getting promoted, or who gets to break the rules – the things these individuals are contributing often reveal what matters in your group.
And, equally critical, check: a) Is what you determine as valued a fact, or my perception? Is it a phantom expectation that became part of the lore that is no longer true? b) Can I live with certain expectations because I gain something that’s more valuable to me? Can I get away with meeting that expectation some of the time? c) Is this a short-lived window of time that I can accept for a longer-term gain? d) Am I prepared to challenge the norm?
These are individual considerations which are beneficial to reassess sporadically. Sometimes we start down a path and stick to it for so long it doesn’t feel like we have options. You get to decide, with intention, that this is what you want.
Finally, there are times when you may have to “bear down and do it.” Consider: is this the exception or the rule? And can you live with it?
Challenge your own fears and assumptions
So often what stops us from setting boundaries is the voice inside our own heads saying, “this is too risky,” “I can’t”, or “I have to…or else.” Often this is where we get stuck.
What are you afraid of? Saying it out loud, confronting your individual “why” behind your “I can’t” helps to make it real and solvable.
And ultimately, it’s helpful to consider: What’s the worst that can happen? What options are possible? Feeling like you have a choice can ease the fear and anxiety of setting boundaries.
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual and their situation to decide if the risk is real and if they are prepared to accept it. However, these three steps help to create a deliberate, considered way to make your boundary choices.
Pick the boundary you’d like to enforce. You can try it out in small ways. Consider how to make progress against this boundary. For example, if you’d like to reduce email or message overload – whether volume and/or response time – try a few small steps:
- Respond to senior leaders/partners quickly but be slower to respond to colleagues or peers. You may find that by waiting it out a bit, they solve the issue for themselves. Doing this can have the added benefit of encouraging direct reports to be resourceful in seeking answers.
- Only respond to urgent emails.
- For any boundary, set a timeframe to try it out. Give yourself a couple of weeks and see how it goes. If you are catastrophizing the possible impact, ground yourself in reality by thinking through the worst case, best case, and likely case scenarios if you impose this boundary. Later do a look-back to assess what actually happened. It’s rare that our worst-case fears materialize.
- Experiment with your own discomfort: Sure, you may feel inclined to just do it because: “it’s easy” or “I’ll let someone down if I don’t do it” or “I’m the responsive one.” Set a boundary and sit in that discomfort. The distress, which is usually fleeting, is often not as bad as we predict it will be.
Finally, it’s important to remind yourself what you got in exchange: Did you use that time to focus on higher-level priorities, deep work, or did it free you up to spend time with your family, or for self-care? Rewards give us incentive to keep going!
Pay attention to the frequent boundary predators. Who keeps asking and pushing? Why that pattern? If it’s direct reports, keep in mind that the more you solve their problems or micro direct their behavior, the slower their growth. If it’s a manager, a first consideration is whether they really know what’s on your plate. Often managers don’t always remember. Perhaps priorities have shifted but it hasn’t been communicated to you. This is where a conversation is helpful – but be prepared with the facts and a plan.You may want to discuss alternate timelines, ideas for tapping into different resources to help get the work done, or what can be accomplished quickly (vs. perfectly).Remember, if you have a boss who won’t give up on any of the things you propose, it might not be the best fit.
Don’t engage in magical thinking. That is, thinking that you can get it all done. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in the time you are prepared to invest. Magical thinking, as in “I can do it all” is a cycle of doom. Being realistic about how long it takes to do something and knowing how much time you really have forces real choices. A helpful exercise is to track how long it takes to actually complete tasks. That provides the reality check you may need.
A note to leaders and managers:
We’ve got to ask ourselves as leaders and managers: what are we doing to support boundaries?
Here’s a start: Stop promoting heroic work hours which creates competition to sleep the least, take the least vacation, etc. Stop applauding team members who consistently pull all-nighters, or skip holiday celebrations, or work through their PTO. Model keeping boundaries by not sending or responding to emails in the middle of the night and during off-times. Let junior colleagues see that people can advance and succeed while also spending time on self-care or with their families. When someone is promoted, make the messaging about their talents and contributions rather than their tireless effort.
Karen Rubin has a broad range of industry experience coaching executives and mid-level managers in Fortune 500 companies across secrets including law, finance, entertainment, tech, professional services, retail, energy, insurance and more. Karen can be found on Linkedin or through Princeton Corporate Coaching, the firm she founded.