5 Career Boundaries You Need to Achieve More of (Your) Goals
Too much to do, too little time? You may think you have a time management problem. More likely, you just need better boundaries. Here are 5 ways to establish better boundaries to achieve more of what matters most to you in your career.
Michele feels like she’s spinning her wheels. Instead of growing her book of business, she finds herself being pulled into last-minute meetings, responding to urgent requests, and putting out fires she didn’t start. As the office managing partner, she wants to be accessible and responsive to others. But the constant demands on her time and energy leave her feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
Like Michele, do you struggle to accomplish what you want and need to do? Does it seem like there is never enough time in the day? What if I told you it’s not a time management problem? More likely, it’s your lack of healthy boundaries.
Why You Need Boundaries in Your Career
Would you feel comfortable living in a house without doors? Probably not. Doors safeguard you and those you care about. Similarly, career-related boundaries protect your time, energy, and effort so you can accomplish your highest goals and priorities. Otherwise, you will deplete these resources tending to others’ interests, requests, needs, and responsibilities. There will be nothing left for you.
One of the first steps in setting healthy boundaries is to realize you have a choice. You don’t have to say “yes” to requests that don’t serve your interests. You don’t have to take on others’ responsibilities. You don’t have to inconvenience or overextend yourself to accommodate others.
Boundaries are a positive form of self-advocacy that gives you a choice in how you show up with others…and yourself. Think of them as an instruction manual for how you want to be treated.
Boundary Challenges for Women Leaders
Many factors influence our boundaries (or lack thereof), including our family of origin, culture, and gender. This is especially true for women leaders and attorneys who try to balance societal expectations to be overly accommodating of others while protecting their self-interests.
As women, we often avoid establishing and asserting our boundaries for fear of being perceived as selfish, unhelpful, or “not nice.” Having healthy boundaries doesn’t make you less caring or supportive. Instead, they empower you to show up more authentically and powerfully with yourself and others.
Here are five ways to establish better boundaries so you can achieve more of what matters most to you in your career:
1. Identify Your Boundaries
Do you say, “it’s fine” in response to your colleague’s chronic lateness, though internally you feel irritated that she doesn’t seem to respect you or your time? One way to identify where your boundaries are (or should be) is to recognize when they’ve been crossed. This usually shows up as an emotional reaction in your body that may seem disproportionate to the situation.
We feel triggered when others step over our boundaries because we assume that they should realize how their action (lateness) pushes up against our unspoken expectation (to be punctual). When they violate this boundary, we often feel unexpectedly irritated, resentful, or even angry.
Notice When Your Boundaries Are Crossed: The next time you feel tension around a person or situation that catches you by surprise, ask yourself if it’s a sign your boundaries are being crossed. Rather than suppress these emotions, stay curious about what they might be trying to tell you about where your boundaries are (or should be).
2. Prioritize Your Interests
Earlier in my career, I believed that truly serving others meant I needed to sacrifice my own interests. As a result, I gave away my time and talent without asking for much in return. Though I loved helping others, I sometimes felt resentful that my “niceness” wasn’t truly valued or appreciated.
One of the reasons many of us feel resentment is because we overextend ourselves to accommodate others without proper boundaries in place to protect our own interests. We put our own needs on the back burner and abandon ourselves in the process.
Win-Win Opportunities: Establish boundaries around the type of opportunities you agree to. Instead of reflexively saying “yes” to a request, consider what’s in it for you too. Is it a one-sided “you-win, I-lose” type of agreement? If so, how can you make it more of a “win-win” where both of you benefit?
This boundary shift has been a game-changer for me. Now I evaluate potential opportunities differently and consider only those that serve everyone’s interests. If it’s lopsided in either direction, it’s a boundary dealbreaker.
3. Say “No” More Often
As one of the few Latina attorneys at her firm, Ana is asked to serve on her firm's diversity committee. She doesn't have the interest or capacity to serve in this way but reluctantly agrees to take on the role because she is afraid to say "no."
Why is "no" such a simple word yet so hard to say? Most of us find ourselves saying "yes" to things we don't want to do at one time or another. Yet saying “no” is one of the most important boundaries you can develop in your career. Can you really say "yes" to what matters most to you if you can't say "no" to requests that don't serve you?
Clarify Your True Values and Interests: Next time you’re unsure how to respond to a request, ask yourself what you would say if no one would be upset or disappointed by your answer. This will help you clarify whether the request is aligned with your true values and interests or if you're just avoiding a negative reaction.
If Ana's preference is to not serve on the committee, she can assert her “no” while still demonstrating her support of the firm’s efforts: “I support the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts, but I don't have the bandwidth to take on this role. Let me recommend another colleague who would be great for this opportunity.”
4. Stop Taking on Others’ Responsibilities
As a new leader of a small legal team, Sonya feels overwhelmed by the enhanced demands of her new role. While much of her workload could be completed by others on her team, more often than not, she just does it herself.
Do you find yourself taking on the responsibilities of others because you think they are either incapable or unwilling to do it themselves? Whether due to a desire to help (people-pleasing) or a need for control (perfectionism), many of us take on work that others should be doing for themselves – a reminder for us parents too! Not only do we become unnecessarily overburdened, but we’re also preventing others from stepping up and taking the lead.
Delegate More: This boundary problem often shows as difficulty delegating to others. This can be especially difficult for those with impossibly high standards or who pride themselves on being self-sufficient. However, the willingness to delegate to others is critical to your success and advancement. You can’t pursue career-enhancing opportunities if you are saddled with others’ responsibilities. Also, when you delegate to the people around you, it conveys trust in them and their abilities.
5. Set Limits on Your Accessibility
Carrie’s client is driving her crazy. He constantly texts and emails her late at night and over the weekend with low priority needs. He's one of the firm's biggest clients, so she wants to be responsive. But her need to be at the client’s beck and call is affecting the quality of her work and disrupting her family time.
If this situation sounds too familiar, know it’s a common problem for many women attorneys and leaders. Asserting limits on our accessibility often conflicts with expectations of being constantly available to others, especially clients and employers. But if you don’t set boundaries, you’re saying it’s okay to interrupt you on your family vacation and blow up your phone with texts after midnight.
There will always be situations that require your flexibility, but shouldn’t it be the exception rather than the norm? Maintaining appropriate boundaries around when and how others can access you is more than just your right. It also helps you stay focused and maintain a better work-life balance.
Communicate Expectations Upfront: Sometimes, others unintentionally step over our boundaries because we haven't communicated what they are. A best practice is to manage expectations at the beginning of an engagement. If you are worried that setting limits like this will affect client or employer relations, check your assumption by sharing your preferences and asking for theirs:
“You can reach me during the day by phone or email. If you need to access me in the evenings or over the weekend, please email me, and I'll get back to you by no later than the next business day. Does this schedule work for you?"
Can Better Boundaries Help You Achieve More of Your Goals?
When you have healthy boundaries in place, you'll be amazed at how much time, energy, and freedom you have for the things that matter most in your life and career! You’ll also feel less stress, self-denial and resentment, which naturally creates authentic connections with others.
At the heart of healthy boundaries is clear and direct communication. It requires courage and a willingness to be honest with ourselves and others about our needs, values and interests. Especially if they aren't being met. The good news is that asserting your boundaries is a skill you can learn.
If you’d like to establish better boundaries in your career, contact me to learn how I can help. You are also welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me to learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator
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