Setting Boundaries at Work

Today’s post focuses on the importance of finding balance in your work. It’s an excerpt from One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership by Mike Figliuolo.

You are the only one who can protect your time and your interests. You have to establish “the line” you are not willing to cross or allow others to cross. Whether it is the number of hours you work, the work you do (and the work others do), or the physical layout of your workspace, there are things that are or are not comfortable for you. The problem is no one knows where your line is until you tell them they have crossed it. Unless you let others know what your comfort zone is, they will superimpose their own upon you. Nine times out of ten, you will be dissatisfied with their choice. You have to set boundaries to establish those lines.

As you think about defining your lines, take a moment to reflect on times you have felt taken advantage of at work. Think about what boundary was crossed that made you uncomfortable. Were you asked to work late? To miss a family event? To do work well below your skill level? Once you have a sense for where those boundaries are you can begin defining your lines. You need a set of lines you are happy working inside of that define the mix of work you do or do not do and set limits on how long you will work, when you will work and how you will work. They are designed to help you achieve a mix of work you will be excited about doing.

I enjoy being challenged by my work. I also prefer to manage my own tasks, deadlines, and priorities. Obviously I communicate those priorities and agree upon them with my leaders but in general I prefer to have more control over them rather than less. My maxim for defining the lines of my work-style is “I’m going home. You’re doing my job.” Here is the story behind that maxim…

In one role I had, I kept my “to do” list on a big whiteboard across from my desk so I could have all the work I needed to do staring me in the face. It was a good way for me to see everything I had to do at a glance. One day my boss walked into my office and stood facing me with his back to my whiteboard. He started rattling off all the things I should be thinking about, all the projects I should be doing, and all the analyses I should be conducting. Every item he mentioned was already written somewhere on my whiteboard. Several times I tried to interrupt him to explain I was on top of things but I was unable to get a word in edgewise. I was getting extremely frustrated with being micromanaged. I decided it was time to make a statement. I calmly picked up my briefcase, put it on my desk, put my laptop in it, closed it and shut off the light on my desk.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going home. You’re doing my job so you don’t need me.”

He was confused by my statement. I asked him to turn around and look at my whiteboard. I pointed out all the things he was asking for were already underway and under control. I explained to him I like to manage my tasks and my team’s priorities. I helped him understand I found meaning and excitement in running my organization and he came to realize that a large portion of my job satisfaction was tied to having the space to do my job.

Was my approach to clarifying this point high-risk? Yes. Was it potentially a career-limiting move? Definitely. Was it also a pointed way to define boundaries, responsibilities and preferred management styles? Absolutely. Fortunately I had a great relationship with my boss and he got the point. He apologized for micromanaging and I apologized for being disrespectful. After that incident he gave me a great deal of room to operate and the balance of my work was to my liking.

I take some measure of satisfaction from being competent at my job. I do not enjoy being micromanaged. One way I prevent that from happening is to clearly articulate and agree upon responsibilities and boundaries with my managers. Sharing my maxim is a simple yet effective way to broach that conversation.

You need to define your own lines regarding the work you do or do not do, time spent at work versus time spent away from it, and any other boundaries that make your work and life experiences pleasant ones. These lines will form your maxims. You should be able to rely on them during stressful times to remind you of the behaviors that enable you to achieve balance.

First, define your work balance. Ask yourself the following questions and document your answers:

– What kind of work is required for you to be happy with your job? Which specific tasks or activities do you find the most fulfilling?

– What kind of work or which tasks would you love to eliminate from your daily routine?

– Which characteristics of your job would you like to maintain at all costs (e.g., flexibility, predictability, ambiguity, simplicity, complexity, independence)? In what kind of environment are you most productive?

– What characteristics of your job would you like to eliminate (e.g., flexibility, complexity, etc.)? In which environments are you unproductive or unhappy?

– How do you prefer your coworkers, bosses, and team members to interact with you? How do you prefer they not interact? What pet peeves do you have regarding how others treat you?

– Is there anyone you know who has an outstanding balance of doing work they are thrilled with compared to work they do not enjoy? How do they achieve that mix of work? What can you change about your own approach to work to better emulate them?

– Has there ever been a point in life where you had a good work-life balance? What were the circumstances surrounding that situation that made it work?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can begin to better define your boundaries at work which should improve your job satisfaction and therefore improve your morale and performance. What are your boundaries at work? Share in the comments below.

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