Career

How To Politely Set Boundaries People Will Respect

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You’re sitting at your desk. It’s 4.55pm. Great, 5 more minutes then you’re out of here to catch your ferry!

Oh no. Is that the office Karen heading towards your desk? Quick! Head down. Act busy. Maybe she’ll realise your packing up and bugger off.

“Amy, do you have 5 minutes I need to ask you something urgent!”

You scream NO inside. You have 5 minutes but you know it’s going to make you late for your ferry…

Yet, you hear yourself utter the words “I’m about to leave but I can spare 5 minutes.”

Fast forward 25 mins and you’re left wondering why on earth you agreed to do someone else’s work by 9am tomorrow.

Avoid this situation by setting some clear boundaries around yourself.

If you don’t set boundaries, you’re going to find yourself falling behind in your own work as you bend to other people’s demands. You can be kind and helpful, but there are ways to go about helping others that don’t require you to compromise your own priorities.

I’ve often heard colleagues say things like “but if I leave on time people won’t think I’m a team player” or “but if I don’t accept the request, employee X will tell my boss”.

I get it. Your boss is calling you at night and on weekends demanding things. Another person you work with is gardening all day and providing feedback on your documents last minute. You feel if you don’t respond and get the work done, it will be your job on the line.

These behaviours are perfect examples of how not to be a team player.

Don’t for a second let anyone gaslight you into thinking you’re selfish because you didn’t respond to their demands. These behaviours are not acceptable.

There will be times when you need to put in some extra hours at work but that should be on your terms and it shouldn’t be happening all the time.

The rest of the time, you put in your 8-10 hours and you leave to spend time with your partner, play with the kids, exercise, blog or whatever else you do!

So how can you respond positively and professionally to these situations?

Below are some common situations and responses to help you navigate these events. These can be used if you’re working from home too.

SituationOld ResponseNew Response
A colleague is demanding your time as you’re leaving the office.Instead of this:
“I’m about to leave but I can spare 5 minutes.”
Try this:
“I’m leaving for an outside commitment that I can’t be late for. Feel free to send me an email or put 15 minutes in my diary tomorrow and we can discuss.”

Continue packing up even if the other person continues to speak to you. By the way, you have no obligation to tell them what your commitment is. If you’ve done your hours and your work you don’t need to stay.
The same colleague is insisting it is urgent after you told them you couldn’t stay.Instead of this:
“Ok I’ll stay and help.”
Try this:
“What’s going to happen if we wait to discuss this first thing tomorrow?”

Unless it is going to result in harm to a person, a regulatory breach or the building is on fire don’t stay. Most of the time people say things are urgent with no justification. It’s their own deadline they’re making up.
A colleague is pushing their work onto you.

(This is the scenario I struggle with the most. Sometimes it’s not always easy to tell what should or shouldn’t be your job, or how much effort something is going to be. If in doubt, just use a holding response like “I’ll get back to you.”)
Instead of this:
“Ok sure, I’ll get that done for you.”
Try this:
“I’m happy to help from a product perspective. I can give you <insert item> which you can then use to complete your task.”

Example: one of the common requests I get is “I need reporting and insights on <product/campaign>” so I’ll say “I’m happy to help you by sharing the product reporting I do on a weekly basis. You can use this reporting to build your presentation.”

Sometimes I’ll share existing presentations I have as well. Your colleagues can then use these inputs to build bespoke content.

If they do require information you don’t have, add it to the backlog for the next sprint. If you find some spare capacity in the current sprint you can surprise and delight them by doing it early!
A colleague complained about you to your boss and your boss has questioned you about it.Instead of this:
“Yes, Karen did ask me for that late in the day but I couldn’t get it done because I had too much of my own work to do.”
Try this:

“<Boss name>, if I worked on Karen’s priority, then my current projects A & B driving <insert business value> would need to be de-prioritised. Let me know if you’d like to de-prioritise one of these so I can work through Karen’s request.”

It’s more than likely your boss is aware of this person’s behaviour. It’s also likely your boss is reasonable enough to understand what the priorities are.

I’m being a bit dramatic in this article, obviously use your judgement for your situation.

If the Managing Director is asking you for something you may want to consider hearing them out and missing your ferry!

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