#02 The Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries at Work

The 360 Leadhership Podcast, Episode 02, 10 January 2022 by Lucy Gernon

The term ‘set your boundaries’ is used a lot, but what does setting boundaries actually mean?

In today’s episode, you’ll learn:

·       What does it really mean to set boundaries?

·       What happens when you don’t?

·       The surprising thing that happens when you do.

·       My 3 step method to help you to set your boundaries and stick to them.

And I have a freebie. I’ve created a workbook to accompany this episode. I’ll share the link in a few minutes so you can grab it and use it to take action today.

Sound good?

Ok I have a lot to cover today, and I’m excited to jump in and get going… so let’s go.

What are boundaries? Healthy boundaries are boundaries that you set to ensure your emotional and mental stability i.e. so you don’t burn out or lose your mind! Your boundaries dictate what behaviour you tolerate from others and allow you to say “no” when someone breaches your boundaries. There is a lot of research that shows that employees who set boundaries are more motivated, have a greater sense of well-being and personal empowerment.  Poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and ultimately burnout.

I’ll let you in on a big secret you may not realise: Most people actually like boundaries!!

I remember in my corporate days, I managed a large team of up 32 direct reports at one point, yep, 32! We were in a growth phase in the business at the time and in the process of hiring another manager and not only was I supporting the business and technical side, but I also had 32 people relying on me. I simply didn’t have the bandwidth for quick questions or 2 mins of my time.

So, I set my boundaries around availability, I explained clearly to my team when I was available and when I wasn’t. I explained how I liked to be contacted and how I didn’t. For me, instant message was the bane of my life and is the most disruptive thing in corporations these days. I’ll talk about that again. So, back to my boundaries with my team.

I had a specific set time each day for questions directly after our morning meeting for urgent and important questions like if they needed an answer or direction in order to move forward with their work. Anything else was off-limits. And then once a week, I set up a 1-hour clinic if they had non-urgent questions, so more strategic stuff where they needed guidance or opinion.

My team loved it because it meant they knew when I was available for support instead of guessing and feeling bad for asking or feeling rejected when I said no. And I loved it as during that weekly hour, I was “in the zone” and with them. I wasn’t rushing or thinking about that fire burning over in the corner, I was present. So it really worked.

I like to think of your boundaries as a barrier you create around yourself to protect you so don’t get hurt either mentally or physically. Boundaries are necessary so you don’t get walked all over and so people know how to treat you. I remember hearing Dr. Phil say years ago “You teach people how to treat you” and it’s so, so true. If you don’t set your personal boundaries and communicate what is and isn’t acceptable to you, how do you expect others to know?

They’re not mind readers!

Now you may be thinking that when it comes to your job or your industry, time boundaries like I’ve just described won’t work. But I promise you, not only will they work, but they will also make you more valuable to your organisation as you’ll be focused on the right stuff, be more productive, and ultimately be happier.

Ok, next let’s talk about how to actually do this. How to set your boundaries. I’m going to give you a 3 step method to help you with this.

1.    Define your personal rules. You need to think about how you want people to treat you. What’s ok and what’s not ok for you. When was the last time you actually thought about that?

Back in my early days of management, my boundaries were like a bubble. I tried to have them but it wouldn’t take much for someone to burst them, usually people I felt intimidated by like my boss or more senior person.

Does that sound familiar?

These days, my boundaries are like steel. Even in the few years before I left the corporate world they were pretty solid. Why? Because I grew a pair and realised that other people had boundaries so why couldn’t I? I had worked my ass off doing everything for everyone and honestly, it didn’t get me anywhere. I had no time to be strategic. I was reactive and not proactive. I worked long hours catching up, putting work before my kids. So, I set my personal rules and stuck to them.

My personal rules included:

–          No meetings on Fridays where possible. I used this time to be strategic, to meet my team, to plan for next week, to celebrate success from this week to work on improvements and my development. How is that not a good thing?

–          No quick questions unless it was planned in advance.

–          I turned on ‘do not disturb’ when I was doing something. Why is it that you need to be available all the time? How will you ever get your work done if all you hear is ping ping ping? Imagine if your kid was doing their homework and they kept checking their messages every time they heard a beep- what would you say to them? You’d tell them to stop and focus. You’d take the phone and tell them when they were finished they could have it back! It’s the same thing for adults, but somehow, we have forgotten that! I’ll talk more about time management in another episode.

–          Another rule I had is if you were 2 mins late for a meeting, I’d try contacting you. If I couldn’t get you, I’d leave the meeting. My time is as precious as yours, and I don’t wait around. Even now I have a rule of being on time with my own clients so that they get the most out of our time. We only have 1 hour together 1:1 and if you’re 5 mins late, that means you only get 55 mins. I want to give you as much value in the time we have together so it’s important you’re on time.

2.    Apply Your Personal Rules. Don’t be apologetic about trying to be more productive, more strategic, and protect your mental health. Your time is your most valuable asset and you’ve got to protect it. I say this all the time and it’s only really in recent years I’ve come to understand the value of time. When my father-in-law passed away suddenly as I explained in episode #001, I realised how time is all we have. We put such an emphasis on money and material possessions, but time is your most important asset. Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back. And you never know how much time you have. So, it’s really important that YOU control your time and not the other way around.

You have got to be proactive and assertive at work. You’ve got to push back and say no.

I’ve worked with and interviewed 100’s of people across all industries including financial services, social media. Pharma, technology, insurance, consumer goods, food and beverage, cosmetics – the list goes on and one thing I can tell you with certainty, is that ALL corporations I’ve come across operate the same.

There’s a constant push for results. There are always fires to be put out. There is always a customer and some big mission that the company is linked to, which appeals to your emotional side. It’s a marketing strategy! No matter what industry you are in, you are serving people. I personally worked in pharma for 17 years where the patient was the big focus. It’s the reason I worked so hard as I wanted to be sure that I did my part to get life-saving drugs to the people who needed them. It’s what the company constantly reminded employees of. And, it was the truth. We were all working hard to serve the patient.

But in the process, I sometimes neglected my own family and friends. Some of whom actually were the patient I was serving as they took our products. I sometimes felt so compelled to do my part, I shouted at my kids and put them to bed early when they were making what was noise to me so I could go back on the laptop. They were too loud but all they were doing was playing. It’s one of my biggest regrets actually.

I remember having a conversation with Jayden who’s now 14 when he was about 7. I asked him how I could be a better Mom and he said he hated when I shouted at him. And this isn’t easy for me to talk about but I’m sharing in the hope that it will help you if you can relate. All mothers have their moments and shout at their kids. It’s one of the things we all feel guilt over. But when you have so much on your mind and your child is noisy, it can be hard to keep cool.

But, if you remember what’s important and set your boundaries, everything shifts. Back when I had that conversation with Jayden about 7 years ago,  I was always working. I got calls in the evenings, even calls in the middle of the night. I thought I had no choice. I didn’t know how to set my boundaries. I thought I had to jump when my boss or someone more senior said so. But in hindsight, I should have said no. I should have pushed back more, but I didn’t know how, until I did.

In the few years before I left Pharma, I set some pretty strong boundaries. I stopped putting work first and tried to be more present with my family as THEY were the reason I was doing what I was doing in the first place. It was an oxymoron- I was working so hard as I wanted to give them a good life, but how is a good life a good life If you’re not present with them? I have 3 kids Jayden who’s 14, Sarah May who’s almost 10 and Kate who’s almost 6 and trust me when I say, they grow up fast. You only get one shot with your kids while they are young. Be with them. Prioritise them. You can still make a big impact at work and be successful without sacrificing your whole life. Do your job and do it well during your work hours and give yourself permission to switch off and live after work.


3.    Defend Your Personal Rules: If you’ve worked your way up the corporate ladder, you have already proven your commitment to the company. I mean, you are definitely not declining a meeting so you can go file your nails or skive off, you’re too professional for that. So once you have set and applied your rules, you must be ready to defend. Be playful with this, make it a little game in your head. Imagine you’re like Khaleesi in Game of Thrones defending her kingdom.

God, I loved that show, and I really thought It wasn’t my thing originally! If you haven’t watched it just imagine a beautiful princess defending her kingdom with fire-breathing dragons! Defending at all costs! And when I say defend your boundaries, you may be surprised by this, you’ll mostly be defending them to yourself. Your own mindset is the biggest thing that will get in your way when you try to apply this. People pleasing will rear its head. You’ll come up with all sorts of reasons you “shouldn’t” let others down.  So, I want you to download the exercise and write down the reasons you may say no to others.

I know for me when I set my boundaries it was actually because I wanted to add more value to the company, be more productive, improve systems, develop my team and finish work on time for the most part so I could be present with my kids. What’s so wrong with that? Isn’t that what we all want?

So do you see why setting your boundaries does not mean you’re a bad employee? Or a bad leader? It’s the complete opposite and it will gain you respect and you never know, you might just set off a chain reaction in your company.

So, to recap:

1.    Define your personal rules. Grab a pen and piece of paper within 24-48 hours of listening to this episode and write them out. I’ve designed a worksheet to accompany this episode to guide you. You can grab it in the show notes at www.lucygernon.com/balance/

2.    Apply your personal rules

3.    Defend your personal rules

What actions are you going to take? Are you going to take the time to apply what you’ve learned today? I hope so. Oh, and I have a favour to ask. Can you please share this with 3 other women you know in leadership roles who need to hear this. You’d really be helping me out. And if you’re listening on Apple Podcast which is the podcast app on your iPhone if you have one, can you please hit that follow button and give the show a 5 star review? Doing this helps me to rank on podcast charts and therefore my show will get pushed to more people. Can you do that for me? Thank you. I so appreciate it.

Until next week, remember, …. Success, balance and happiness is possible and you hold all the power to make changes….  Ok, that’s it, bye for now.