Setting Boundaries and Saying No at Work

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At work and in our personal lives, sometimes we encounter situations and people demanding more than we’re willing or able to give. Learning to set boundaries and say no in response to situations that might include being overworked, micromanaged, harassed or otherwise taken advantage of, is a key employment survival skill. Equally important (though perhaps less obvious), it’s also in an employer’s best interest to encourage workers to stand up for themselves. With employee engagement and retention continuing to top the list of HR concerns, employers need to understand what happens when employees feel “used and abused” by the company, their managers or their co-workers. 

You Want What? 

Why Employers Should Care

The introduction to a study on employee engagement by Florida State University states:

“All businesses want “engaged” employees — those who are committed to the success of the company and are willing to go the extra mile to see it flourish. But there’s a dark side to engagement that many organizations don’t consider: Engaged employees can quickly become disengaged if they feel taken advantage of — and a formerly engaged employee can do more harm to the company than one who was never engaged to begin with.”

While this study, like many others, revealed “Engaged employees work harder, are more creative and more committed, and they represent an important predictor of company productivity.” It also found that “even model employees can ‘give up’ if they sense that they’re being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues.”

If even the most committed employees disengage when they feel taken advantage of, it makes sense for employers to encourage effective boundary setting and the occasional assertive “No.” One might even go so far as to provide some guidelines (like these) on how it’s done.

Setting Boundaries

If someone at work is behaving in ways that cause you discomfort, resentment, anxiety, stress or distress you need to set some boundaries. To do that:

  1. State the boundary clearly and firmly, without anger. Start with the assumption that the other person is not aware that his/her behavior is unfair or makes you uncomfortable. If possible, provide an explanation that includes the other person’s perspective (i.e. how the impact on you ultimately impacts him/her).
  2. Even though you’ve made the boundary clear, expect it to be violated one or more times before it’s fully established.
  3. Each time the boundary is crossed, address the situation right away. Reinforce the boundary firmly rather than letting the situation fester and build resentment.  
  4. If the same person pushes the same boundary more than three times, first check to see whether you’ve been clear enough. Explain your concerns once more and ask the perpetrator to share what he/she understands them to be.
  5. If the boundary is clearly understood, but being ignored, you’ll need to follow through with appropriate action. Depending on the nature of the situation, action might include requesting mediation assistance from HR, blocking the behavior in some way (e.g. blocking someone who is being inappropriate on social media from interacting with you); or, in extreme cases, reporting the behavior to someone in authority.

In some circumstances, you may find some of your boundaries are just not compatible with the culture or organizational norms of your workplace. You may feel, for example, that after-hours calls about work are an unacceptable intrusion on personal time, while the rest of the organization considers them essential. It’s important to distinguish between boundaries that reflect personal preference and those that signify being taken advantage of or treated inappropriately. Focus first on establishing the latter and then decide whether it makes sense to tackle less critical boundaries.

Saying “No”

Highly engaged and productive employees are often the first to jump in and take on additional work. Employers know they can rely on these high performers to deliver, so they turn to them again and again. But even the most committed employees eventually exceed their capacity and start to feel over extended. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say no when you’ve been in the habit of saying yes.

Here are three tips to help you break the habit of yes without breaking the relationships you rely on at work.

  1. Buy some time: Respond in a positive way without saying yes. Indicate that you might be able to help, but need to check your calendar/workload first. Ask whether the situation is time sensitive and make sure to respond (with “no” if applicable) by the promised deadline.
  2. Take a slice: Indicate that you can’t accommodate the full extent of the request due to other obligations, but that you’d be happy to take on a small part. Be specific in defining the role you’re willing to play to avoid being overcome by scope creep!
  3. Suggest an alternate: Sometimes people come to the person most likely to say yes rather than the person best suited for a particular task. Get to know the strengths of your co-workers. When asked to take on a task you can’t (or don’t want to) manage, recommend a colleague who’s better qualified for the project. This also gives others an opportunity to step up and grow in their roles.

When a few highly engaged individuals carry the weight of an organization, burnout and disillusionment are almost inevitable. Employees who stand up for themselves and establish reasonable boundaries at work help keep the performance bar high for everyone. Make sure your best talent stays (and stays engaged) by not overburdening them or taking them for granted.

 

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