Set clear boundaries

Leadership & Strategy Productivity & Work-Life Balance
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If everything is important, then nothing is important. Creating boundaries helps you safeguard your priorities and performance.

With many people working from home or adopting a hybrid approach, defining the appropriate boundaries has become a struggle.  As it is, it’s was tough to maintain boundaries at work. Whether your colleague asks you to work on the weekend or team members call up with requests after office hours, you probably end up agreeing due to a variety of reasons: you want to help out your co-workers, you don’t want to be seen as uncooperative, or perhaps you simply don’t know how to say ‘no’. In the current scenario, things have become even more challenging.

The lack of clear boundaries can be felt in personal life, too. When your partner assumes you will pick up the groceries (again), when your child asks for 15 more minutes of screen time, when a friend invites you to a party during a busy week…how do you respond? Are you able to protect your priorities, time and energy? Or do you always give in to the other person?

This week, my message focuses on setting boundaries, within and outside the workplace. This is particularly important for anyone in a leadership position to avoid burnout and sustain strong performance. Once you learn to say no, you can empower your team members to do the same – a prerequisite for high levels of focus and productivity.

Some boundaries are clearly delineated. Think of a building, a sports field or a city – everyone can see where the limits lie. Personal boundaries, however, aren’t a given. They can only be created through an act of will. They must be verbalised, discussed and reinforced on an ongoing basis. In her article in the Harvard Business Review, career coach Priscilla Claman explains that you need to take charge of your own boundaries:

Boundary predators rely on their power and authority – and your passivity – to get what they want. It’s up to you to push back by understanding how to create boundaries and maintain them.

The risks of being boundary-less

When you say yes to anything and everything, you get pulled in different directions by different people, leaving your energy scattered. Instead of devoting yourself fully to tasks you really value, you get involved in several activities at half-strength and always in a rush. The result? Mediocre outcomes across the board.

Your wellbeing also suffers, leading to exhaustion at a physical, mental and emotional level. Time and energy are finite resources that need to be regularly renewed. You can function with a depleting tank only for so long – eventually the engine will sputter out and come to a grinding halt.

During this pandemic, many managers set an unsustainable pace at work, driven by dedication as well as necessity. This was understandable. They needed to support their team through a tumultuous period, innovate using limited resources, and keep up with rapidly evolving conditions. But the long-drawn-out absence of personal boundaries comes at a cost, from fatigue and stress to burnout. Now that the worst of the crisis has hopefully passed, it’s important for leaders re-establish healthy boundaries.

If you agree to every request, regardless of your own priorities, you’ll likely end up resenting other people and their demands – be it your team’s calls encroaching on personal time, family members taking you for granted or friends who always make plans to suit their own convenience. Creating boundaries can be uncomfortable at first but ultimately leads to healthier, happier relationships.

The power of boundaries for leaders

According to Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries for Leaders, a leader without boundaries cannot do their job effectively. When you’re incessantly distracted by minor questions and casual requests, your brain finds it difficult to perform executive functions – which are at the core of good leadership. As Dr. Cloud explains:

Our brains need to be able to (a) focus on something specific, (b) not get off track by focusing on or being assaulted by other data inputs or toxicity, and (c) continuously be aware of relevant information at all times.

Boundaries are also vital for your team to succeed. A leader who is always available to jump in and provide the answers stifles the team’s growth as well as their ability to function independently. Taking their cue from you, team members also accept every request – whether it comes from a client, vendor or co-worker in another division. These extra tasks invariably take time away from their core responsibilities, hence affecting performance. As a leader, you can support your team members by defining your own playing field and encouraging them to do the same.

Setting limits isn’t just about saying no to things – it’s also about saying a whole-hearted yes to your priorities

Establish boundaries

Setting limits isn’t just about saying no to things – it’s also about saying a whole-hearted yes to your priorities. When you limit team interactions to office hours, you say yes to quality time with family. When you turn down a social invite in the middle of the week, you say yes to a healthy dinner and a full night’s rest.

Here are seven suggestions to help you create and maintain personal boundaries:

1. Plan and lay out specific terms.

Personal boundaries need to be defined through discussion. These conversations can be uncomfortable, so it’s best to plan what you want to say. Be open and specific about your availability. For example, you might tell your team, “I won’t be available after 7 pm as I’ll be at home. If you have questions or doubts, I’m always free for a chat between 4 and 5 pm.” Or you could tell your partner, “Let’s take turns overseeing the kids’ homework. Here’s my schedule. Which days work best for you?”

Clear communication is essential to creating healthy patterns of behaviour with co-workers as well as loved ones. When people know what to expect of you, they are less likely to overstep your boundaries.

2. Mention your credentials.

When defining boundaries, Claman recommends citing your credentials to bolster credibility. For example: 

“Yes, I’ve worked with this software on several other projects, and I know I can make a contribution to the team. But we’ll have to figure out how to reassign my current work.”

“As your father, I am responsible for your safety, and I don’t think that’s a safe thing to do.”

3. Consider the trade-off.

Saying yes to things outside your boundary means saying no to something within your priority sphere. It can be helpful to assess this trade-off. For example, “If I help out my co-worker with her project, I’ll miss dinner with the kids for the next few weeks” or “If I pick up the groceries today, I’ll have to skip my workout again”. Framing the choice in clear terms can help you decide whether to make an exception or stick to your guns.

4. Avoid the word ‘no’ and offer alternatives.

Along with protecting your boundaries, you also need to protect your relationships. That’s why it’s good to learn the art of saying no without actually using the word ‘no’. For example, “I’d love to join this initiative but I’m unable to do for the next few months because of my schedule” or “I wish I could come to your party this weekend but I just can’t make it because of family commitments”.

Suggesting an alternative can also help you be more persuasive because it shows the other person that you want to work with them to find a solution. Here are a couple of examples from Claman: 

“I can scale back what I give you and do it by Friday, or I can complete it and give it to you a week later.” 

“It’s just not possible for us to spend that amount of money on a new bike this summer. However, I’m happy to brainstorm with you how you could earn some money and sell your old one. Then we might be able to contribute something to the cause.”

5. Pause and assess.

Be sure to actually consider the request, rather than shooting it down immediately. A piece published on the CEO Health+Safety Leadership Network points out the importance of stepping back to assess: 

When you’re contemplating saying no, especially if you’re feeling tired or depleted, pause for a moment and consider the unintended consequences. Stepping back allows you to screen for risk and avoid saying no too quickly.

6. Train your team to set boundaries.

One of the biggest reasons behind an unfocused team is that people feel they aren’t allowed to say no – to their boss, to each other, or to others outside the team. Building clarity and setting boundaries around priorities can help your team to focus on their core tasks. Be careful not to make it an ego or rank issue. Lead the way by honouring your team members’ personal boundaries.

7. Be available during crunch time.

Boundaries are important, but so is adaptability – especially for a leader. During crucial periods, your team members may need more of your time and energy than usual. Be sure to make yourself extra-available at these times: avoid scheduling too many meetings or going on vacation. Schedule less intensive tasks for yourself so you can switch gears without too much effort. After the crisis is over, take some time to recharge and make it a point to re-establish your boundaries once again.

Don’t think of boundaries as what you can’t do – rather, think of them as a tool to open up more time and energy for what you can do. Clear boundaries create clear expectations, making it easier for you to focus on your priorities. Not only does this make you a more effective leader but also helps you foster healthier, well-balanced relationships with loved ones.

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