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How do you set boundaries at work?

Gender Networks

According to Capital One’s Spark Business Barometer study of small business owners, women entrepreneurs are less likely than men to set boundaries for work-life balance. In fact, 31% of women surveyed say they don’t set any ground rules compared to 25% men.

However, setting boundaries for work-life balance is not just a “women’s issue”. We also know that working fathers’ careers suffer when they ask for flexible working or parental leave (Bain & Company 2016) which goes a long way in explaining the low take-up in the UK.

Despite this, we know that setting boundaries isn’t just important for your wellbeing and family life. It is also absolutely crucial if you want to spend time on projects that matter for your career development. As we tell our Fellows when we discuss their vision with them: if you don’t decide how to spend your time, others will do it for you.

So, how do we define and assert our boundaries to have a positive impact on our careers, especially if the prospect can feel daunting?  Below, we share our three easy steps to help get you started.

Define your boundaries

It may sound obvious, but before you can start asserting your boundaries you need to be absolutely clear on what they are. If you have the tendency to people-please then you may come out of situations at work or at home feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of or that a line has been crossed, but not feeling too sure what that line was. If this is the case, it’s imperative to take some thinking time, with yourself but also with your partner if you have one, to get to the bottom of what your ‘red lines’ are. These are your non-negotiables for both work and home.

Everyone’s red lines will be different – you may not want to check emails in the evening as it interferes with family time, whilst others find that the best time for them to catch up and clear their desk for the day. Only you can define what these are and remember, these lines might change as your situation changes. Our Setting Boundaries Workbook has some excellent exercises to help define your red lines.

Communicate

Once you have decided your red lines, it is imperative that you communicate these with your manager and/or team at work, as well as those at home. If you’re not used to asserting your boundaries, then this might feel a little daunting, however, people are more open to it than you might think and will largely appreciate you being honest with them.

Consider, also, the consequence of not doing it. They may be shocked or taken aback by your change of behaviour, which could cause some tension. If they aren’t aware of them, you will also miss out on the opportunity for them to support you in sticking to your boundaries.

Listen to our Big Careers, Small Children podcast, with Carole Robin Ph.D. on building exceptional relationships.

Sticking to your boundaries

So, you’ve defined your red lines and communicated them. Now you need to stick to them. Here are a few tips on how to do this:

  • Identify your ‘boundary traps’. These are habits or situations that will de-rail your efforts to assert your boundaries. For example, if you’re usually the one to pick up school admin and this has become expected within your household, talk to your partner and agree on a way of sharing or delegating this responsibility. Similarly, if office admin jobs seem to always land on your desk because you will always say ‘yes’, raise this in a team meeting and suggest a rota to share the additional workload.
  • Practice setting boundaries. You might be trying this for the first time, and you may find it difficult initially. Start with something small, such as saying ‘no’ to that one meeting scheduled at nursery pick-up time. With practise it will get easier.
  • Ask for help. One huge benefit about openly communicating your boundaries with those around you is that you can ask for their help sticking to them. Ask them to point out to you when you’re not adhering to your own red lines. This accountability will be a huge help with keeping you on track.

Listen to our Leaders Plus Fellows reflecting on career ambitions and setting boundaries in this Big Careers, Small Children podcast.

Everyone sets boundaries differently. Some may have many boundaries, others only one or two. The important thing is that the boundaries you set help you to achieve what matters to you in your career and family life for the long term. Good luck with setting your own boundaries!

Download our Setting Boundaries Workbook for more advice, practical exercises and tips from our fellows and mentors on how to say no.

If you want to join a supportive community of peers who want big jobs but keep boundaries, register interest in the Leaders Plus Fellowship here. 

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