Today we’re focusing on how to choose boundaries and enforcing boundaries at work – not just why you need boundaries or that you should have some!. While we’re on the subject, you can and should incorporate healthy boundaries into your personal life as well. Understanding why and how to set boundaries, and how to protect and enforce them, is important for your happiness and success.
In this episode of The Career Rx we’ll discuss:
- Why setting boundaries at work is needed
- The benefits of setting boundaries in the workplace
- How to set boundaries with 6 secrets for success
We’ll be reviewing specific tips to help ensure you are setting successful boundaries, selecting the right boundaries, and defending those boundaries with your colleagues at appropriate times.
Understanding how to establish and implement those boundaries is what’s going to help you create a better work/life balance.
“The fastest path to boundary erosion is when we start making exceptions.”- Marjorie Stiegler
In this Episode:
[1:15] What are boundaries and why do we need them?
[2:20] Being expected to be on call 24/7
[4:00] Establishing time that’s just for you (a.k.a. avoiding burnout)
[5:30] Identifying how boundaries help your sense of control
[6:10] People treat you by what you will tolerate.
[7:30] Do boundaries make you look lazy?
[9:00] You can’t please everyone – there’s no finish line
[9:40] Ask yourself these questions before setting a boundary
[11:15] Discover how to operationalize your boundaries
[13:00] “That’s not in my job description.”
[14:30] How to implement and communicate your new work/life balance
[16:15] When to NOT break your own rules and what that really says about you
[18:10] Personal levels and boundary justification
[19:25] How are you going to handle this?
[21:20] Don’t internalize colleagues’ behaviors
[23:00] Actions set boundaries louder than words
[24:00] Need a schedule detox?
Note: this is an encore presentation of Episode 5
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Thanks for joining me on this episode of The Career Rx!
TRANSCRIPT: Episode 53 – Secrets to Setting Boundaries That Work
Hey there, welcome to The Career Rx. I’m your host, Marjorie Stiegler. This podcast is all about the important stuff they don’t teach you in medical school, about how to treat your career, like the business it really is, and how to be strategic about your success. I’ll show you how to use modern strategies to get ahead, create your own path and do more of what you love. Every episode is inspired by questions from listeners just like you. So be sure to subscribe. And of course, send me those questions, so I can use them on a future episode. so you don’t miss anything. Be sure to always check the show notes on my website. Are you ready? Let’s get into it.
Hey there friends. In today’s episode, we are going to be talking about secrets for setting boundaries at work, we’re going to get into why this is such an important topic and also get specific about some tips to help ensure that you set successful boundaries. And also that you select the right ones, and that you defend them the right way. So spoiler alert, I do think it’s incredibly important to set boundaries. And as I said in the piece, it’s not helpful advice to just tell someone they should set boundaries. Why? Because most people know they should set boundaries, they don’t know how to set boundaries. Alrighty.
What are boundaries? Why do we need them? So boundaries are obviously just simple limits. They are the rules that are setting expectations of behavior. They help people to know what behavior they can expect from us. And they help us to know what behavior to expect from other people, or at least they help us to know what we will accept from other people. Today, we’re focusing mostly on boundaries at work, because this is The Career Rx after all, but you can and should, I think, incorporate healthy boundaries into your personal life as well. What is it in the environment or in the world today that makes us need these boundaries? Well, first of all, modern technology leads us to this basically 24 seven, work life, or at least theoretically, you could be immediately available all the time and never have any unplugged time to decompress, to be able to just be by yourself, or to be free from that expectation that people might want to reach you. Whether that’s your own anxiety about whether people can reach you, or whether people really do have an expectation of reaching you. Both of these are pretty stressful. And it’s a totally unreasonable and unsustainable expectation that you’d be immediately available all the time. But with modern technology, that’s basically the case. Because we do have computers, phones, and everything everywhere. And so many of us now have our work devices integrated with our personal devices, sometimes it’s the same device or one just forwards to the other. So it can be very tricky to even by your best efforts to be, you know, able to actually turn off work related electronics. So that’s the sort of modern technology situation that we have. The other thing that we have, if you’re a physician listening to this podcast is you know, medicine is basically 24 seven every single day of the year, it’s very high stakes, there are true emergencies, patients, you know, have their lives and limbs depending upon your ability to be available. And of course, health care is a big team sport. So it’s not just about you, but it’s about everybody else. So if you are the rate limiting factor that can feel like a major bottleneck, right.
But it is also unrealistic, even if you work in an acute care setting. And even if you work all kinds of hours, it’s totally unreasonable, it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that you would be that you yourself would be always available all the time. It might be more realistic that somebody should be available all the time, right, a physician or a clinician should be available. But it does not always, always need to be you. But, I think part of the culture as well is that medicine is going on all the time. So we sort of scoffed at the idea of nights and holidays and weekends because we don’t have those on a regular basis.
But be that as it may you still deserve protected time that is just for you. And there is a way to establish it. I would say finally that healthcare has this culture, right, that has long revolved around the idea that the patient always comes first. We’re taught that from day one, and it’s just it’s ever present patient comes first. And obviously the patient is a priority. But that doesn’t mean that you As the physician or clinician come last, it doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable for you to be working in a health care system, where in order to put the patients first, you are always last. Obviously, that’s a recipe for burnout. And then you’re not going to be able to do a good job by those patients, you may not even decide to stay in medicine, so then you won’t be taking care of any patients, and you won’t be able to give your best.
So it really is a win win win in everybody’s best interest, to be sure that healthcare professionals have the tools they need to avoid and to manage burnout. And that overextension that comes from having no boundaries. So that includes setting effective boundaries at work, frankly, your bosses should all be really thrilled.
And by the way, I’m of the opinion that most burnout is caused by healthcare systems issues, and therefore it would be best addressed with systems fixes. But that’s not what this episode is about. This is about what we can do for ourselves. So I’ll just put that on the table and move on. So what does it do for us to have boundaries? Obviously, boundaries help us to reduce our stress, they help to preserve physical and emotional energy, like we just talked about. But they also allow us to live our values, to identify our personal standards and our personal limits, and really to stay there. They also help us to increase our sense of control. And sometimes this is a just a truly a sense of control, we feel like we have more control. And perhaps the actual control we have is unchanged.
But just the exercising of decisions and and sort of the deliberateness helps us to feel more in control. It properly helps us to feel control that we have always had, but just didn’t really realize we had. Now you’ve heard the saying before. And I don’t know who originally said this. But you know, you’ve heard the saying you teach people how to treat you, you teach people how to treat you by what you tolerate. Right? What kind of behavior and what kind of speech you tolerate from other people. You teach people how to treat you by what you’re willing to call out or not, if you stay silent, if you don’t speak up. And also whether or not you are consistent about those things. So sort of what you tolerate, what you reinforce, what you call out and how consistent you are about it. And I think the last part is a real Biggie, people need to know that what you say you mean, it’s probably the most important, I think, in terms of defending a boundary.
So we’ll come back to that. Why is it even an issue? Why do people have a hard time setting limits and establishing boundaries at work? Well, this I think, is because many people, especially the sort of people pleasing type of people, but a lot of people are frankly afraid because they don’t want to jeopardize relationships. And that’s totally normal and natural. People don’t like friction in their relationships, you want to have good working relationships at work. And you certainly want to feel like your position at work is safe. So you don’t want to be seen as lazy or someone who’s not a team player. And you don’t want to not be the person who always comes through. And you might be afraid that you could miss out on an opportunity or promotion or that people won’t think that you’re really dedicated. And of course, this is all very unfair. It’s not it’s it this is a sort of extreme dichotomy, that if you have some boundaries, that you’re somehow then lazy or not dedicated.
But that is, I think, an unrealistic view. It’s an unfair view. And I think it’s one that a lot of us are concerned other people will have, but that they really don’t. I think the reality is that usually if you have healthy boundaries that are reasonable, and we’ll get into what’s reasonable here in a minute, it actually boosts your productivity and protects your health. And I think it actually earns you respect. Because when you’re exercising your autonomy, you can be seen as a leader and an independent thinker, and somebody who is principled, right, you have actions and you do them because they’re based on your principles and your values, rather than just, you know, sort of arbitrary rules.
I will mention, by the way, just for the record, that I do think it’s really important to be dependable. I do think it’s really important to follow through on commitments and be a team player and be the person who steps up to help when you can and go the extra mile and all that. But I want you to keep perspective. The reality is that there is no amount of niceness and helpfulness and thoughtfulness and extra maleness that is going to please everybody. And instead, you’ll become the person that everyone knows, never says no. Which may be helpful and good to a point. But when it begins to sort of overextend you, then it’s no longer good. And really, it’s just gonna turn into a snowball of everybody’s saying that they know you don’t say no. So they’re going to be coming to you for things and you’ll never reach that threshold where your helpfulness and extra maleness and niceness has actually accomplished. The pleasing there will always be more pleasing to do. So there’s no winning. There’s no winning in that one. There’s no finish line, so to speak.
Okay, let’s get into the actual secrets. Now. We’ve talked about why we need boundaries, what boundaries are, what they do for us and why people don’t set them very effectively. Let’s get into secrets for setting boundaries that work.
So the first one to choose realistic boundaries. This is often overlooked, because a lot of people don’t give very careful thought, but think about what’s reasonable and what’s realistic, not only for your own needs, what do you need? But also what is the nature of your work? What is sort of the context of the environment in which you practice? What are the cultural norms? What is everybody else doing, what’s in your contract, I mean, these are some very practical things that you will want to give some attention to, when you’re thinking about whether or not the boundary that you hope to implement is reasonable.
I do want you to think big, of course, you know, I don’t mean to stifle anything right off the bat here. But if you think about sort of a bell curve of where your boundaries might be, just realize that if you’re pushing it, pushing is good. But if you’re pushing it way, way, way out the edge, then you likely will be seen with some lens from some people as being you know, too high maintenance, someone who is sort of that diva who needs some special rules. And there’s a social price to pay for that in your workplace. So be reasonable, be realistic about what is likely to give you the most bang for your buck in terms of what would give you that stress reduction, or that autonomy, or that protected time to be most productive, what you need. But also do it with your eyes open about how kind of far on the fringe you are, and how to go about doing that.
So set those realistic boundaries, it’s one of the reasons that people fail, is because they try to choose things that are sort of inconsistent with the operating model of where they work. And if there’s something that you’d love to do, but you’re contractually obligated to do something else. That’s not the boundary for you, I don’t recommend that you start there.
Alright, number two, you should set principled boundaries. What do I mean by this, you’ve got to know the why behind what you want, what is the principle that’s guiding what you want, this is really helpful to operationalize your boundaries. And it’s also very helpful. In case, this isn’t, you know, the long term sort of employment or work solution for you. And you’re trying to figure out if the grass is truly greener somewhere else, if you understand the why, then you will be able to sort of see whether that boundary could be successful in a different setting, or whether it can be just as effective, even if it looks a little bit different. So this is where it’s really helpful to have done some introspection and some personal work on identifying your values. And here, I’ll put in a little plug to say this, this is over. But you could still read it. This was a Twitter event that we did, some months ago, the true values challenge, where we asked people to sort of vote among one or two, or sometimes three values that are all really very appealing and easy to endorse, but that we asked to really force rank and pick one over another.
So I’ll put the link in the show notes for that, to check out the true values challenge. This is really important to do some introspection and have done some work on what is most important value to you. Not the value you think you’re supposed to hold, or the value that sort of someone else’s narrative about you is, but understand what you most want. If you have a strong anchor and a value in the principle, then you’re likely to be able to honor that with some boundaries, that that could be in different forms, right, they could show up sort of in a different way. arbitrary boundaries don’t really work as well. So as an example, this may sound nuanced, but the difference here is going to be values based. Everyone hates it when someone says, Well, that’s not my job. That’s not in my job description. Why? Because that sounds like a person is a complainer who just doesn’t want to help out. They don’t want to roll up their sleeves, they don’t want to get stuff done. They’re not a do-er. Right, that’s what that sounds like. And, you know, perhaps what that person means is that they’re consistently being asked to do a scope of work that’s outside of essentially the remit for which they were hired, or that’s outside of the compensation package that they have.
So if you’re constantly being asked to take on responsibilities that clearly justify a different compensation or title, but you aren’t being offered an appropriate compensation, then that’s an issue rooted in fairness and equity, right? Those are values and that’s different from just saying, well, that’s not in my job description.
Now, a person who’s saying that’s not in my job description, it may or may not really mean the ladder, what I just described about equity and fairness, they might literally just feel like it’s not my job description, and I really don’t want to lift a finger to go the extra mile. So again, that’s different, those kind of boundaries are much, much harder to set, because they don’t fly, right they don’t have that principal value and so therefore, they’re hard for you to justify even to yourself. I think they’re and they are pretty hard for colleagues and coworkers to swallow. So I recommend really making sure that you have principled values And principle boundaries based on those values.
All right, number three, deciding how to implement them, are you going to announce that you have a new boundary, especially if you’re not brand new on the job, it can be hard to make a shift from what you are normally doing? Or how you would typically respond to a sort of new way of working or a new expectation of what’s going to come from you. So are you going to have to explicitly announce that you’re making a change? You might. And if so, what language are you going to choose? At maybe your new boundary is something that you can foster just by your own behavior. Or maybe it’s something that really requires an agreement and acknowledgement from others.
You know, it’s important to remember, I think that the actual boundary is the behavior limit, which is distinct from your why. So when you’re thinking about your communications, and how you’re going to implement it, these are sort of two separate decisions, right, thinking about how you’re going to start changing your behavior is one thing. And thinking about what you’re going to say about it is another thing. And really only you can choose what’s right for you, and only you know, your own comfort and your workplace culture. Only, you know, if you think it will be helpful for other people to understand more about your why. Or if you want to just leave it in a nebulous way, that’s entirely up to you. And I think, completely legitimate.
So just remember that when you’re communicating how your behavior is going to be different, or how the expectations are going to be different. That is separate from communicating all of the thinking and all of the reasons that you’re putting into why you’re choosing that. And again, you may or may not want to share all of that second part, it’s up to you just realize they are two separate things. When you’re deciding how to implement, then once you have decided to implement
Here comes number four, do not break your own rules. So it’s important here, I think, to define emergencies, and exceptions, because there will be some, and you don’t want to be breaking your own rules. So it helps to have that thought out in advance as best you can. There might be some unforeseen things that come up. And you may need to be a little bit flexible. But generally speaking, once you have set a boundary, it’s really, really important to hold firm, it helps to articulate what kinds of things constitute an emergency or sort of a validated exception. And you can have some verbal conversations with people so that they understand those.
But once you have chosen to hold firm, the fastest path to boundary erosion is when we start making exceptions. And a lot of people feel like But no, if I’m the one making the exception, then I’m still, you know, empowered as the decision maker, and I’m choosing to make an exception, but like, let’s not kid ourselves, once you start making exceptions, people start to realize that, that this is negotiable for you, that it’s not actually a boundary and that there’s bargaining to be had. And that begins to erode it. So very often we are our own worst enemy when it comes to defending those boundaries. Because we stop, we stop behaving in the way that we said we were going to behave. And then it’s totally powerless. Other people stop expecting us to behave that way. They know we can be sort of bargained out of it.
And there’s double damage now, because now you not only have eroded that the actual boundary that you said, but you’ve also told people not to take you seriously. Right? You’ve essentially told people not to take you seriously that you’re not firm and that anything that you have set up can be railroaded right over with the new negotiation.
All right, number five, I think is to avoid justifying the boundary on a personal level. So number three, I said, you know, you got to keep in mind that it’s separate deciding what the behavior is and what the rationale is and how much you want to share about it. But if you are sharing about it, make sure and also in your own self talk, this is true, you do not need to justify nor should you justify your boundaries on a personal level, you do not need to, for example, be too stressed or have some extenuating circumstances outside of work. In order for it to be you know, reasonable for you to have some boundaries, it is not a shortcoming of yours. So you don’t need to say like oh, being plugged in all the time makes me just crazy and frazzled. That makes it sound like it’s somehow your fault or your problem, that you’re unable to rise to the challenge of being plugged in all the time. And that’s just not the case.
Instead, hang on to that reality that it’s an unreasonable expectation for you to be immediately available to do everything that’s asked of you all the time. At the same time, you know, as if you’re clone and superhuman, it is an unreasonable expectation. And that’s okay. It’s okay for you to say I’m not going to be living up to unreasonable expectations. It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you frazzled. It doesn’t make you whatever else in order to push back against these things. reasonable expectations.
All right, and then number six, have a protocol for boundary violations. That sounds sort of like official and harsh, but it’s important, it’s going to happen, people are going to violate the boundaries that you have set, and you need to be ready to handle them. So this isn’t hard.
This is sort of saying, you know, if your example of your boundary is that you’re not answering work email on the weekend, and you get an email from your boss that comes in on a Sunday afternoon, what are you going to do? Are you going to respond right away? Are you going to respond and remind your boss that you’re not supposed to be able to be reached? I would say, if you do, you’re sort of eroding things. But again, you decide how you want to respond. Maybe you’re going to respond on Monday, with an apology that you couldn’t be reached, maybe you’re going to respond without an apology on Monday, are you going to explicitly reinforce as part of your communication, like, “Hi, it’s Monday, I’m getting back to you. By the way, I don’t check my email on the weekends.” Are you not going to do that?
Any number of these are, there’s no right or wrong here of all the things I just listed out, I’m just illustrating that there’s different ways that you might approach it. And it’s important for you to have decided in advance what you’re going to do. Because what you don’t want to do is to feel all you know, hijacked by your emotions, that a person isn’t respecting your boundaries, and then you respond in an irrational way. And often, it’s not a justified way, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that just because you don’t want to check your email, or maybe this is me, I don’t want to check my email on the weekend, doesn’t mean my boss or my colleagues don’t want to work on the weekends. And so if they, if that’s when they choose to write, if they wish to do that, they wish to email me. And it’s really up to me just to not check it and to not internalize or, or over interpret that they sent it to me and that they expected a response, which is distinct, of course, from if that is coupled with them saying, how come it took you so long to get back to me, then you may need to explicitly reinforce that boundary, but don’t internalize, you know, sort of what other people what their behaviors are, unless their behavior sort of reflects an expectation of a different behavior from you something that’s in conflict with your boundary. So hopefully, that makes sense.
But in any case, you know, have some pre thought out protocols for how you are going to respond. If at all, when your boundaries are violated, sometimes the best response is really to do to do nothing right just to stick with the expected behavior when you’re going to become available, or when you’re going to be getting back to back to your timeline, whatever it is. And you may not need to explain that it’s a boundary. Sometimes I like to think about the toddler in the grocery store, right? The toddler having the tantrum. So when you think about boundary setting is not really about writing down your boundaries or deciding them for yourself. And it’s definitely not about explaining them to other people, although that might be part of it. It’s 100% about behavior.
So you’ve seen a kid in a grocery store throwing a tantrum, and the parents are saying stop it right now I’m gonna take you out of the store, and we’re gonna go home. But they don’t do that. Instead, they continue to explain the behavior, why it’s not okay. And then they bargain with the child. And then they tolerate and they give more chances. And now that toddler understands that this whole thing is totally powerless and empty and is of no consequence at all. And in fact, to the contrary, the toddler knows that the tantrum gets attention, and usually the attention and the desired results that the toddler wants. So then the parents are giving in or bargaining or whatever, they’re doing an attempt to restore the peace, and they’re really not acting on that behavior. They’re explaining what their intended boundary is that they aren’t acting in a way that makes it true.
So this is the very same if this is the same with grownups, this is the same outside of tantrums. This is with all boundaries, it’s not really the words, it’s the behavior that teaches other people how to treat us and what to expect from us. And it’s also exercising of our own choices, that teaches us that we really do have control. So we can hold ourselves to a reasonable standard, even if it does not please every single person on the planet, and we will still be valued and trusted and respected. Because importantly, if we have these boundaries, we will be able to be healthy, to be focused, to be productive, and to give our very best contribution to our work.
So go out there to them well, and also pop on over to the five day schedule detox. If you want to clear off some of the clutter that’s on your plate. It’s going to be five days five strategies, and a profound change in the amount of spare time that you have. When’s the last time you said you had any spare time? So come on over again. Check the show notes for that. I would love to have you join us. I can’t wait to see you there. Bye for now.