If you have difficulties saying ‘No’ at work, or you feel you’re not as confident setting boundaries as you’d like to be, here are a few strategies you can use to address this issue.
The best part: I’ve noticed how people who set boundaries gain more respect than people who accept everything that comes their way. If you’re a self-proclaimed people-pleaser, you might benefit from reading this article.
Establishing (or re-establishing) boundaries is really important for your long-term happiness and career satisfaction, and they also prevent you from developing anxiety and getting burned out.
These are the steps you can take to start becoming better and more confident at setting boundaries at work:
1. Always think before you react
Never just say ‘yes’ before you get a chance to think.
Most of the people I work with are ambitious professionals who want to impress their boss and do well in their role. That in itself is great, but it often means they accept spontaneous work requests without taking the time to think and reflect.
Next time your boss (or colleague) asks you to do something new, take a step back and think before you speak. Something you can usually say immediately is:
“I’d really like to help, but I need to check my schedule”. Or “Thanks for thinking of me, I’d love to help, but I need to speak to xyz to check our deliverables”.
Not only does this give you time to think and calm yourself down, it also shows maturity and professionalism, which puts you in a positive light.
2. Identify your limits
Now that you’ve bought some time, remind yourself of your limits. By limits I mean your emotional, mental and physical limits.
Particularly when you’re starting a new job, identifying your limits is very important. However even if you’ve been in the same role for a while, taking some time to think about what you’re willing to do (working late, answering emails out of office hours, whom to give your personal mobile number to), is crucial.
For example, in one of my earlier jobs I was so keen on impressing my boss, that in the first few weeks I stayed late doing stuff that wasn’t that urgent, and I even replied to emails past 10 pm. Really bad idea.
Once those limits are set, even if you didn’t set them knowingly, they act as parameters which your boss and colleagues will use to interact with you from then on. In other words, once you stop doing this extra work, it looks as if you’re slacking off.
Bottomline: If you feel some of your boundaries have been transgressed over time, it’s worth having a friendly but formal conversation with your boss or colleagues. If you’re starting a new role, thinking about what boundaries you want is one of the first things you should do.
“True strength is found in standing firm, yet bending gently.”
3. Weigh up the pros and cons
You’ve been asked to take on some extra work, and you have also had the time to think about whether doing it would transgress any of your boundaries.
Now it’s time to ask yourself these questions:
- Is the task something that will benefit my role?
- Is it important to the company?
- Does it require my skills, or can someone else do it?
- Is it something that interests or even excites me?
- Is it something I can do that won’t interrupt my other work too much?
Dwell on your answers and if possible, sleep on them.
(I have become even more convinced about the impact of sleep on problem solving and good decision making after reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, a highly interesting book.)
4. Allow yourself to set boundaries
It’s normal to feel guilty and to start doubting yourself when you first consider setting boundaries. Often we fear how the other person is going to react, and whether we’re going to hurt their feelings.
This is totally normal, and the best way to tackle this is going through the steps mentioned above, and then by starting out small.
What’s a small thing you can practise saying ‘no’ to, that doesn’t cause you to break out in a sweat just at the thought of it?
Try it out, and see how it made you feel. You’ll likely feel proud of yourself and more confident. Moreover, you become better and better each time you practise this.
5. Accept there’s a cost to any action
Remind yourself that whether you choose to do something or to not do something, it comes at a cost.
When you spontaneously accept any extra work, the cost is paid by you. It’s paid by you in time, stress or anxiety.
This is why it’s so important to be aware of your boundaries, so you know when they’re being transgressed.
What would happen if you said no, other than you feeling bad for a few minutes? If you know, rationally, that someone else will then end up doing the task who has more time or more relevant experience, then allow yourself to feel bad for a brief while, and allow the feeling to pass.
6. Communicate clearly and professionally
I can think of countless examples where I could have avoided confrontations and misunderstandings if I had only paid more attention to the words that I used.
Once you have thought and reflected about your boundaries, you need to communicate them clearly to the relevant people. I know this sounds obvious, but a lot of people miss out on this step or do it half-heartedly because they fear it’s not going to be a pleasant conversation.
You have to communicate with people, clearly, precisely and confidently. If the boundary is about what counts as replying to emails after working hours for example, then be very clear about the timings. You might also need to prepare yourself to repeat this several times if the boundary goes against something people have practised in the past – old habits die hard as they say.
It’s very important to maintain professionalism and not use words that make you sound immature. Instead of saying “I’m too stressed to take on more work”, explain why this extra workload would mean you can’t effectively complete the work you are already responsible for.
In other words, make your reasoning relevant to your boss and explain how it would affect the bottomline of the company: “If I have to do x, I’ll risk not having enough time to do the necessary research on client y, which we agreed in our last meeting is one of the company’s top priorities”. You get the drift.
Lastly, if your boss makes a request which seems unreasonable, feel free to ask for more information. Don’t assume it’s unreasonable and then bite your tongue – instead, ask: “Can you tell me more about why you need this done?” You could then also clarify what you should prioritise given your present workload.
If said with confidence and positivity, this is a perfectly reasonable reply and might save you a lot of stress and anxiety.
7. Offer to help in a different way
Show your boss or colleague that you really do care, by offering to help them in another way.
For example, could you offer your advice or feedback further down the line?
Or could you suggest someone else in the company who has more relevant experience, or more time, to do the task?
8. Bring up a boundary violation immediately
When a boundary has been transgressed, do not stay quiet and then dwell on the problem for days or even weeks. You need to bring it to the attention of your boss or colleague immediately, otherwise you lose momentum and power.
Get your thoughts in order, get calm and focused, but don’t wait more than a day. This is similar to giving difficult feedback to people, which you can learn more about in one of my previous articles How to be confident and give effective feedback to difficult employees.
I have found these strategies highly useful in conversations with bosses, colleagues and even family members.
Try them out, and you’ll likely save yourself a lot of stress, anxiety and frustration, without it affecting your status in your company. In fact, you’ll come across as more polished and professional, as well as being able to complete your work more effectively.
I wish you the best of luck,