“Being a nice person is about courtesy: you’re friendly, polite, agreeable, and accommodating. When people believe they have to be nice in order to give, they fail to set boundaries, rarely say no, and become pushovers, letting others walk all over them.” — Adam Grant

Sometimes you have to turn off to turn on.

At home my wife and I have a simple solution when the TV or an appliance does not seem to work. Pull the plug, wait ten seconds, plug back in and turn the device on. A moment of rest and a fresh start.

The same solution applies to our workplace relationships – they need to refresh. When we are always on, and expect others to always be on, relationships become worn and depleted. The answer is managing your work life through effective boundaries.

Boundaries are physical, emotional, and mental limits. While a river may clearly separate cities or states, the limits at work are more abstract. Turning off can be a risk – not being available to others may cause you to fear that someone else could be taking your place.

How do you align limits with productive relationships?

The excellent Harvard Business Review article by Greg McKeown “The Emotional Boundaries You Need at Work” identifies two boundaries required for meaningful relationships at work:
– Protect yourself from others
– Protect other people from you

In other words, boundaries apply in two directions.

What about protecting others from you? As leaders, we may have good intentions yet we can underestimate our impact on others. We can be hypocrites. For example, we get irritated when we are interrupted or contacted after hours, yet we do the same to others.

Mixed messages include:

“I return phone calls and emails within a few hours, seven days a week.”

“I know you are on vacation – do me a favor and follow up on the ABC quote today.”

We fail to appreciate what it is like to be on the receiving end. We take our eye off the people and focus on the result. In the end, not turning off ends up being a career staller and an obstacle both to your professional fulfillment and those who depend on you.

I remember a client whose spouse confronted him about his work/life priorities. Missed dinners, vacations, and empty conversations had tested her patience. He believed the next promotion was just around the corner, and he had his priorities out of order until his wife finally called out his behavior. She told him his company got the best of him, and she got whatever was left over.

Leftovers – he had a choice to make. He began a new commitment to setting better boundaries – for himself and others.

Three keys to setting effective boundaries:

Self-Care

Your career is your most important financial investment and requires self-care. Define your hours of operation to meet the needs of your role. Communicate your availability to others who rely on you and establish a clear understanding of what an emergency entails. Finally, all boundaries may not be equal. Evaluate how you want your boundaries to apply – boss, client, co-workers, etc.

Accountability

A boundary is effective only if it is understood and enforced. Prepare for violations. You will be tested by others, and others will suffer from your failure to respect their limits. Discuss and resolve boundary violations immediately.

You May Be Off – Your Work Stays On

When you turn off the first step is having a process in place to keep things moving forward. Having a clear process in place through email, voicemail, and reliable partners to sustain your work is the hallmark of a professional. You work hard to build a great reputation – make sure it continues when you are gone.

Establishing constructive boundaries, for you and others, is a key step toward becoming an effective leader. Take care of yourself, stay firm, and ensure your back-up coverage preserves your personal brand while you are away. A protection plan leads to respect – not leftovers.

All my best,

Todd Popham