What is stopping you?
So what’s getting in the way? In my work with mid-level leaders, boundaries loom large in our conversations. My research proves that leadership performance is part person, part environment, and we have more influence over both than we typically believe.
The first barrier to overcome before setting boundaries is in your own head – you fear what will happen if you push back. You want to say yes. You have high expectations of yourself and feel that you should be able to do all this. You have a set of beliefs and habits that are deeply ingrained and can’t be changed. Or can they?
The second barrier, and often the one blamed first, is your environment. You work in a place where everyone works late and people email you at all hours and expect a response. The cult of overwork can’t be changed. Or can it?
So what can you do?
Put your mindset before your skillset. Often it is our own unhelpful beliefs and emotions about boundary-setting that need to be addressed first. Identify how you feel about boundaries, why you feel the need to say yes, and why you tend to apologise.
Try to remember that boundaries build respect. But if you don’t respect your own boundaries, no one else will. They will always take you for granted, and they will always want more. Here are three practical steps to adjust your mindset.
Try not to say yes so readily: Saying yes often enables people who have poorly planned, are taking advantage of people, are out of touch with workloads or, like you, have said yes so often that they are now drowning. Saying yes to any of these people only perpetuates their cycle; saying no will help them to help themselves.
Be more conscious of your desire to say yes: Was it a good yes or was it a yes that should have been a no? A good yes benefits your career and your company, excites you and doesn’t put your main priorities at risk. A bad yes is something someone else can do, doesn’t benefit or excite you, and is going to damage your work or wellbeing. Stop and ask yourself before you say yes – and see if this helps to unlock a few nos.
Stop apologising: I bet you’re already doing more than just your job as it is, so what do you have to apologise for?
After you’ve tackled your mindset, you can then look at taking more tangible actions, such as controlling your diary, setting priorities and pushing back.
Taking control of your diary is as easy as it is liberating. Simply accepting back-to-back video calls is exhausting and bad for your health. Switch from video to audio, and from sitting to standing, or even walking. Another change is to switch off notifications after hours, and make sure your status is offline, too. If they think you’re online, they’ll expect you to respond. Control your diary before it controls you.
Without your own priorities, you’re at the mercy of everyone else’s; we often feel overwhelmed by requests and feel that we have no way to push back. Well, without your own priorities, you are largely correct about that. New York Times bestselling author Ken Blanchard has a great suggestion – ask your boss. Both of you can make a list of the things you think you are accountable for and put them in order. Your lists will differ. Then, negotiate your priorities so you know which items are less important. It will give you confidence that you’re saying no to the right things.
Lastly, learn to say no.
Most people avoid confrontation, so techniques to say no often go unused. Instead, learn to say yes to say no. This will stop you feeling guilty, maintain your reputation as helpful, and help you break the bad yes habits gently. Try these four techniques to say a yes that actually means no:
- The ‘yes, but’: Yes, to offering advice, yes to connecting them with someone who can help, or yes to reviewing their work, but no to doing the actual work: Yes, I’d like to…but I can’t fit it in right now.
- The prioritiser: I’d love to, but we can’t risk this other deadline.
- The trade-off: Yes, we can do this if you can find more time/resources/change of scope.
- The assertive: I’d love to. I will have to park X or Y project to make it happen – which one do you think?
Finally, let others know that you’re setting boundaries, and be specific about what they are. It gives them a chance to respect your boundaries and invites them to hold you to account for the habit change. It might even help them evaluate and change their boundaries, too.
Rebecca Houghton is the founder of Bold HR and the author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership.