3 Steps to Setting Boundaries at Work
Learning when and how to say no could be the best way to advance your career.
Setting boundaries at work is tricky business. Oftentimes, some of the most talented professionals are the ones who end up feeling overworked and underappreciated. The more you take on, the more tenuous the boundaries in the workplace can feel.
It's almost as if the "reward" for being a team player is ending up with more work, being expected to compensate for weaker team members, and ultimately letting your job take advantage of your strong work ethic and goodwill. Or, people just keep coming to you because you're a people pleaser who always agrees to help. The pressure makes setting boundaries with your boss and coworkers feel pointless.
Your coworkers may not be aware of your limits and so they'll force their behaviors onto you unless you're willing to stand your ground. In other words, by not setting clear boundaries with your boss and colleagues, they're going to come to expect more and more—and some of that is on you.
Setting boundaries at work can be especially tough when you're dealing with chatty people and an open office layout in which there's no door you can shut to keep people out of your space.
The good news is that by applying a few smart strategies, you can take back your workday. Think about all the time you'll recoup when you establish boundaries and set aside time to complete your projects.
These tactics can teach you how to set boundaries at work and discourage coworkers and managers from taking advantage of you.
Tips for Setting Boundaries at Work
1. Establish Some Ground Rules
You might feel annoyed that people send you emails and texts at night when you just want to relax and have some family time, but if you keep responding, the requests will keep coming.
Pick a reasonable time that you will officially end your workday (say 8 p.m.) and stop checking email. You might also let your colleagues know that you will only reply to text messages for urgent matters—otherwise, it will wait until the morning. By observing these boundaries, you're setting a precedent for others to follow, otherwise the expectation becomes that you respond quickly and at any hour.
2. Share Schedules With Your Colleagues
If organizational culture allows, designate "do not disturb" time slots in your workday so you can focus on a project without interruption. You can do this by popping in your earbuds and putting up signage on your cubicle wall or office chair, or you can block out times in your Outlook online calendar so your schedule is available to people who wish to book time with you.
3. Learn How to Say No
Setting boundaries at work means you have to stop saying yes to everything. Even if you make your availability clear, people might still ask for "just a little favor," expect you to attend every outing after work, or want you to make an exception just for them.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with going above and beyond your job description and bonding with coworkers—you want to be known as someone who is willing to take on challenges and help others. But there's also nothing wrong with saying no and meaning it—especially if it's to the point that your own projects, work-life balance, or stress level is suffering. Here are a few diplomatic ways to say no:
- Don't get roped into extra projects. Learning to guide and collaborate with the people you work with can help you be assertive without sabotaging your career. Be clear about your time allocations with other coworkers. Instead of automatically saying yes, suggest that they have to clear the request with your manager first. You can say, "Thanks for inviting me to work on that project, however, I have this deadline with our CFO and I can't tackle that right now. If you really need my input, you'll have to check with my boss."
- Learn to say no to your manager graciously. It's hard to say no to a superior—you don't want to be insubordinate. But sometimes he or she may ask for more than your current workload or skill set will allow. Saying, "I don't think I'm the right fit for this project right now because of XYZ" is better than taking something on that you don't think you can handle. Perhaps you don't have the bandwidth, knowledge, or expertise to help them out. Regardless, you're not the person to help make their idea a success, and you don't want to disappoint them. The key is to be polite, honest, and direct.
- Get out of after-hours invites. It is important to do some professional socializing to build relationships, but don't feel pressured to attend every single happy hour, birthday bash (unless it's your manager's), or bowling night. It's OK to decline, especially if there are frequent invitations. Whether you've got other plans or just want to go home and unwind, your off-work hours are your own.
- Offer solutions with your "no." Just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should if it's not truly your area of expertise. When saying no to someone, refer them to another person who is better suited to help. That way, you're still providing assistance, even if it is indirectly.
As long as you work hard and help others when you're able, people will begin to respect your boundaries when you do have to politely decline.
Advocate for Yourself
Setting boundaries at work with your boss and colleagues is a major step toward establishing a healthy work-life balance. Ideally, you will work with people who respect your boundaries and know when they're asking too much of you. But sometimes, you might have to alert them to your limits. Could you use some help stiffening your backbone? When you create a free Monster profile, we can send you workplace etiquette, career advice, and job search tips straight to your inbox to help you navigate the trickier parts of working a job.