3 steps to setting boundaries at work

Learning when and how to say no could be the best way to advance your career.

3 steps to setting boundaries at work

People can learn to respect your boundaries.

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 agree to help. The pressure makes setting boundaries with your boss and co-workers feel pointless.

“Many people are unaware of other people’s limits and will force their behaviors on you if you do not stand your ground,” says Ivan Misner, Ph.D., networking expert and author of Who’s in Your Room? The Secret to Creating Your Best Life. 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, says Sharon Schweitzer, an employment attorney and business-etiquette expert. 

The good news is that by applying a few smart strategies, you can take back your workday.  “Imagine the additional time you will gain when you establish boundaries and set aside time to devote to specific projects and goals,” says Schweitzer.

Use these tactics to set boundaries and discourage co-workers and managers from taking advantage of you.

How to set 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. “Set a precedent by observing these boundaries, otherwise the expectation becomes that you respond right away at any hour,” says Schweitzer.

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, says Schweitzer. You can do this by popping in your ear buds 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 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 co-workers—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 by co-workers. Be clear about your time allocations with other co-workers, says Schweitzer. 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, says Misner. “It might be because you don’t have the bandwidth, the knowledge, or the expertise to do what they are asking; but, in any case, you’re not the person to help make this idea a success, and you don’t want to disappoint them,” he says. 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 sometimes, especially if there are frequent invitations,” says Schweitzer. 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 I say no to someone,” says Misner, “I always try to refer them to someone who is more qualified or more 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 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. “Learn how to guide and collaborate with the people you work with,” says Misner. “It’s the key to standing your ground and not sabotaging your career.”

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