How to Set Boundaries to Ensure Success – Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin

Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin offers proven strategies for setting boundaries that work.

From Elizabeth: When people land on my doorstep for coaching, almost always the first issue we tackle is not networking, or advancement, or long term planning—but boundaries on the job and in life.

Why? Because without good boundaries, your success could very well be routinely undermined. And on a deeper level, when we don’t have good boundaries, we are sending ourselves the message that our integrity and our wellness aren’t of value. This impacts our self-esteem, our confidence and our performance as a result.

Here are four critical arenas where we all need to set solid boundaries to protect our careers, our health, our sanity and our success. Read on.

How to Set Boundaries to Ensure Success

1. No is not a dirty word

Many of the women executives I coach struggle with the idea that they shouldn’t say no to any assignment, task or request on the job because saying no will be viewed as an unwillingness to do what’s required or to be a team player.

As a result, my clients are often overwhelmed, performing poorly, or completely exhausted from constant 18-hour work days by the time they begin their work with me.

Not being able to say no when we need to prevents us from performing at the top of our game at work, from being able to rest when we need to, and from standing in our own integrity with regard to how much we can handle at one time.

For my clients who are struggling with saying no, I often suggest two exercises:

Say no to three things every day, however small, as a way of beginning to “flex your ‘no’ muscle.” Practicing in small ways makes it easier to say no when the stakes are higher.

Look around your office for role models who say no routinely and are still successful. At my big Wall Street firm, there was a hugely successful partner who, for his entire career, had never taken a meeting after 5 p.m. because he wanted to get home to have dinner with his family. If others can do it, so can you.

How to Set Boundaries to Ensure Success

2. Your phone is not (always) your friend

One of the areas in which my clients struggle the most with boundaries is around technology. Our 24/7 culture makes it hard to unplug and decompress when we need to. Some of us even sleep with our cell phones because we believe that if we are not checking email at 3 a.m. (and answering it!), our supervisors will somehow think we’re not doing enough.

I regularly set ground rules with clients around their time online. This includes putting all technology in a drawer for at least an hour every night, and no screen time for a half-hour before bed.

For some of my clients, this causes a painful withdrawal initially. However, many quickly realize that even the most urgent email can wait for 60 minutes while they have a meal with their partners or go for a walk outside.

How to Set Boundaries to Ensure Success

3. Don’t blur the line between professional and personal

Having good boundaries at work means drawing the line at certain types of engagement that are almost always bound to boomerang on your career. This is particularly important for women, because unconscious bias still opens us up to discrimination when we allow the boundaries of our personal and professional lives to become fuzzy.

What does this mean in concrete terms?

First, with extremely rare exceptions, it isn’t a good idea to sleep with co-workers, and it is a uniformly terrible idea to sleep with your boss. When things go south, women are far more likely than men to pay the price professionally, regardless of how the relationship ends. Keep your dating life out of the office, and your career will stay safe.

Second, set strong boundaries around how you socialize with colleagues outside of work. I advise my clients to set a one drink limit on any work-related event, even a post-workday happy hour, to avoid slips in judgment that may come from drinking just a little too much. Your career is a lifelong endeavor, and you don’t want to create a bump in your ascent by saying the wrong thing to your boss or insulting a powerful co-worker because you’ve had a bad day and a few too many.

Relatedly, it’s also not usually a good idea to share your most recent breakup or drama with your best friend with colleagues. Do what you need to do on the job, and get support for what’s not working elsewhere.

Third, don’t gossip. It is not your business whether your boss is having an affair or your colleague had a fight with someone on her team. Gossip inevitably blows back on the person circulating it, most often in the form of performance reviews that question the focus of the employee on the true task at hand: their work. Place your attention on your performance and your productivity, and leave the water cooler gossip to others.

How to Set Boundaries to Ensure Success

4. Remember that YOU are what matters most

Lastly, to ensure success now and over the long haul, you must set boundaries around your health and wellness that you do not compromise. This requires careful time management—I am a supreme advocate of keeping appointments with yourself that you hold as strongly as those with your most important clients—and also the self-worth to know that you matter and are worth the effort.

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