How to set boundaries at work without being labeled a jerk

You have to draw the line somewhere.
You have to draw the line somewhere.
Image: Action Images/Steven Paston/via Reuters
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It was 2012, and a colleague on my project told me about a wedding he hoped to attend, which would require him to leave work early on a Friday. I was a junior management consultant, and we were on one of those projects where the client rules all. We stayed up late or got up early to meet every single deadline, even the arbitrary ones. My friend was nervous to tell—or rather ask—our project leader about his plan to attend this wedding.

When he returned from the conversation, I could see on his face that it didn’t go well. He told me the project leader said, “If you want to play with the big dogs, you’re going to have to miss some weddings.”

Um what?

Work-life balance requires setting boundaries

Don’t the big dogs like weddings? Isn’t building relationships key to business success? And more importantly, do you care at all about me and my co-workers and the events in our lives that are important and meaningful for us to attend?

The questions I came away with were among the many indications I had early in my career that consulting with this firm was not the right fit for me long-term. I had no interest in playing with these wedding-missing big dogs.

Boundaries back then just weren’t a thing. You were expected to work whenever and wherever you were needed.

Flash forward less than a decade. Now, as a business owner who can feel day-to-day the age gap widening between myself and junior employees, I’m aware that adhering to every person’s every boundary and compromising all business goals for the individual is not a sustainable path. But I’m certain that leaders can do a lot better than we used to.

At Ama La Vida, the coaching company I co-founded, I’m increasingly hearing team members say things like, “I don’t do x after y time.” Or, “I’m stressed so I can’t take on that project.”

I love it. This is what we have been preaching that they do. This is what we coach our clients to do. I wish I knew that I had the power to do more of this earlier on in my career and the confidence to actually do it.

But, as with most things, true success comes in the execution, not in the concept. Sometimes people just come across like jerks when voicing their boundaries. Others may seem inflexible or difficult to work with. And others seem like they’re just not as committed, leading even their peers to be resentful.

Here are a few tips for how to establish boundaries in the workplace thoughtfully and successfully.

Acknowledge the person who will have to step in

The first thing to recognize is that in most cases, by honoring your boundary, someone else may have to adjust their plan and miss a goal or deadline, or work in a way they hadn’t planned (often your boss). If you have a good and caring boss, they may be more than happy to do this. They value you as a person and want to create an environment in which you feel seen and appreciated. Do the same for them!

You can say something like, “I know you have that big board meeting coming up and this is a key input.” That shows you recognize how your contribution (or lack thereof) affects them and their work. Or this may look something like, “I apologize for changing our plan last minute. I know and appreciate that Jess will be impacted by this.”  This demonstrates that regardless of what you’re about to say next, even if it means asking Jess to do something she doesn’t have time to do, you see that and appreciate it, and you aren’t only thinking about yourself.

Provide context (when appropriate)

Depending on the nature of your role, you can and should be able to say something like, “I will be out from 10am to noon today for a doctor’s appointment.”  You should not have to explain what the appointment is for. Your health or your personal or family challenges are no one’s business but yours, and it is up to you how much transparency you provide to your boss and team.

When I say provide context, I don’t mean you should share the nitty-gritty details of that rash you need to get checked out or the trouble your daughter is in at school. I mean to provide information surrounding your situation or boundary that may enable your boss to better support you, or allow you to be better understood.

For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to have to miss the monthly meeting so someone else will have to present for me,” you might say something like, “I really want to make the monthly meeting, but I have a conflicting appointment this month during the back half of the meeting.” Maybe you can go first on the agenda or maybe you can present next month instead of this one. Just that additional bit of context may allow your manager to come up with a solution that you may not even know is a possibility.

In other cases, to the extent that you feel comfortable, you may wish to provide some of the details of your personal situation to a few trusted colleagues. This can be useful to help prevent assumptions and to give your team a glimpse into the headspace that you’re in.

This might look something like, “Our nanny decided to leave abruptly after a year and a half. I may seem scattered and may be unreachable during certain hours as we work out another long-term childcare solution. I am as committed to crushing this project as you are, but I’m also simultaneously mourning the loss of someone very important to my family.” Think about how differently this will be received from, “I can’t make the meetings on Tuesday or Thursday anymore and need to reschedule our one-on-one.”

Provide coverage or suggest alternatives

This is key and is the practical output of what we did to acknowledge the other person in step one. I can’t tell you how many times someone reporting to me has had something come up or has gotten overwhelmed and dropped a ball that I am then left to pick up. Stuff happens, and I want my team members to have full, colorful lives outside of work.

What I am hoping for is that if you cannot do something that would typically fall on your plate, you proactively help me find an alternative solution so I’m not left in the lurch. Maybe you ask another team member to cover for you. Maybe you plan ahead and complete a task at an unusual time so you can prioritize whatever else it is that’s important to you that you need the time for.

So instead of saying, “No, sorry, I can’t meet with the client at that time,” maybe instead you say something like, “I don’t take meetings at that time, but Brooke has a very similar style to mine and could be a great fit in my place. Alternatively, if the client is open to it, we could discuss meeting at this other time instead.” Now your manager isn’t left with the task of figuring out what to do and how to manage this situation. They respect you and your boundary and have a couple of great options for how to proceed.

You should never be sacrificing yourself for your work

Ideally your work is additive to your life, not a vortex that sucks you in, stripping you of the time and energy to do anything else. So please keep prioritizing your boundaries at work. And please also be mindful that the business has goals to meet and that your boss has boundaries of their own to try and honor.

These things are not actually in conflict, even if the logistics sometimes get complicated. When we respect and honor each other’s goals and boundaries from top to bottom and bottom to top in an organization, we are all more productive and successful.

Nicole Wood is the CEO and co-founder of the coaching company Ama La Vida. She is based in Chicago.