How to Set Boundaries at Work So You Can Feel Like a Human and Not a Cog in the Machine


Setting boundaries at work is imperative. But as anyone who has ever taken a conference call while on the way to school pickup knows, it’s easier said than done. So, how do you reclaim balance? We caught up with Kathryn Minshew, CEO and co-founder of The Muse, for a road map.

1. Start By Getting Clear About What Matters Most

Whether it’s small (like preserving your lunch hour) or big (saying no to work-related correspondence past 5 p.m.), the first step you need to take with boundary-setting is to clarify your own priorities, so you can effectively communicate them to your boss and colleagues, Minshew says. “Where are you willing to be flexible to accommodate the needs of your employer or external partners or clients and where do you really need to protect your time? That’s what you need to ask yourself up front,” she explains.

2. Next: Be Flexible

Boundaries are important, but they don’t have to be hard and fast. “You might say that you don’t want to be in the office past a certain point, but you’re willing to be flex on this up to X times per month during crunch periods,” Minshew says. “It’s all about building flexibility into your boundaries to demonstrate you’re a team player and willing to go above and beyond, but also need to draw a line because we shouldn’t be allowing our jobs (or bosses) to run rampant over our personal lives and needs.”

3. Discuss (and Manage) Expectations

Let’s say you’ve got a colleague who Slacks, texts or emails late at night. You’re fuming at the after-hours interruptions, but what if they’re actually not expecting you to respond, simply getting things of their to-do list for you to address the following day? “Miscommunication is often what causes the person in a less senior position to react,” Minshew says. Have a conversation and go into it assuming both parties have good intent. “Articulate what you would like to see from them and ask what they would like to see from you to develop a set of expectations around communication, responsiveness, work hours and more—one that works for you both. A collaborative approach is the one that’s most likely to keep your relationship intact while resulting in the outcome you want.”

4. Use Ultimatums as a Last Resort

Often, the pressing need for boundaries arises at moments when you feel pushed to the brink. But Minshew doesn’t recommend leading with an ultimatum or a threat to leave. Instead, you want to make your grievance clear as well as your goal to seek alignment. A sample script: “I’m really excited about the work we’re doing here and I want to be able to dedicate myself to it for a long time. That said, I’m worried that the current working hours I’m pulling are unsustainable. I don’t want to get into a situation where I feel burned out or tempted to leave for that reason. How can we approach this?” Bottom line: You want your opening statement to demonstrate your need for change, but also the fact that everybody is on the same team. “It’s, ‘I want to be a great employee, I want the work to get done, but I also want to protect my personal life. Then, take it from there,” Minshew says. 

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Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...