Does Your Back Ache From Bending Over Backwards for Your Employees?

Being the boss is tough.  With all the information available on how to motivate and engage employees, without being a micro-manager or a bully, it can be a bit confusing trying to determine what exactly an effective boss is like today.  A big part of becoming a good boss is understanding and creating healthy boundaries.

What is a boundary?  A boundary is an imaginary line that exists between you and your employees.  It marks the difference between your organizational role, authority, responsibility and status, etc. and theirs. And by virtue of this, it defines acceptable behaviors in a given situation, and it gives you permission to tell others what to do and what to expect of them as they do it.

How do you know if you have unhealthy boundaries with employees?   If your boundaries at work are non-existent or too loose, you’re probably the type who is very concerned about whether your employees like you.  That is, your primary desire, motivation, and basis for your decision-making centers on making your employees like you.  And because you want them to like you, you believe if you take care of them and even protect them, they will like you more and work that much harder.  After all, it’s all about relationships, right?

Yes, it is about relationships – healthy ones – with good boundaries.  Boundaries that recognize and communicate that you are not your employees’ equal at work and that it’s your job to tell them what to do and to provide them information about why they need to do it and how well they did it.  If you are overly concerned with being liked, you’re focusing on you and not on the company’s goals and interests (which is the job of management).  (This is called co-dependence or “letting the tail wag the dog”.)  In short, you are not fulfilling your role as boss and are bending over backwards too far.

If you find yourself walking on eggshells around employees in the pursuit of their happiness and at the expense of the company’s interests . . . . If you balk at requiring/asking your employees to do the not so fun parts of their jobs . . . . If you are avoiding a conversation about performance or conduct issues because you’re afraid you might upset an employee. . . . here are 4 things you can do to create healthier boss/employee boundaries:

First, consciously step into your role as boss with no apologies.  This means, you are the “decider”.   It’s your job to set expectations and sometimes to have difficult conversations: that’s what you’re paid to do.  You don’t need to be a jerk about it.  Just be as clear as possible.   Your employees already expect this by virtue of your role as the boss.  The authority and permission to tell others what to do is built into the boss/employee relationship.  (Repeat:  you don’t need to be a jerk about it.)  They’re waiting for it because even they know when they are pushing boundaries.  They are probably surprised you haven’t already addressed certain issues with them.

Second, strive to be respected instead of liked.  You might be able to do both, but garnering respect first and foremost forms the basis of a healthy boss/employee relationship.  To gain respect, you must be firm, fair, and consistent, so your employees know what to expect of you on a regular basis.  And yes, your employees won’t like everything you hold them accountable to, but they’ll understand it and expect it.

Third, don’t actively seek to be friends with your employees.  They might be great people, but to maintain a healthy boss/employee boundary, you shouldn’t see each other tipsy at happy hour or know minute details of your current or past relationships.  Concentrate on the work with occasional superficial chit chat.

Fourth, get better at handling conflict and hard conversations. Being the boss means you will deal with situations where most people don’t want to change the way they do things.  Conflict abounds.  When you shy away from conflict, you’re trading the possibility of something new and full of potential, for staying stuck in the present situation that you may think is safe but which reflects your inability to adapt and your lack of faith in others to do the same.

To better cope with the discomfort of being the boss, find peers – other managers, business owners, CEOs – to commiserate and celebrate with.  It can be lonely being in charge, and these peers can relate to the trials and tribulations of being a boss and offer advice and support.

Your employees were hired to accomplish work in your company.  They don’t mind doing the job – they applied for it.  And healthy, defined boundaries will create clarity, making your work together easier and more productive.

You Versus Your Management Role

management roleI once worked with an elementary school principal had learned from credible sources that this long-term substitute was a fairly regular user of marijuana.

The principal pondered, “This isn’t a problem, is it?  I mean, I haven’t really seen her smoke pot. She’s a great employee – she’s here on time every day, the students like her, and she’s doing a good job.  I mean, there’s nothing I can do, right?  I would be violating her employment rights if I told her she couldn’t work here any longer, right?”

Heavy sigh.  Obviously, this school principal was trying to convince himself that he didn’t need to address the situation.  (I mean, really . . . how many of us know someone who smokes a little weed from time to time.)  I knew I had to offer this principal a quick lesson on the difference between his personal boundaries and those required of him as school principal.

When you accept a job in any organization, you are not paid simply to show up and be your sweet little ol’ self; rather, you are paid to step into a role that serves the organization.  Moreover, in a management or other leadership position, you are paid to represent the interests of the company.  I like to think of it as literally stepping into a suit of clothing that represents the position.  For example, this individual was required to step into the role of “manager” or “school principal”.  Sounds simple enough.

When stepping into a managerial role, it can be really easy to make the transition from yourself as “individual person” to “manager”. But  your personal values, beliefs and ways of operating must align to a great degree with those required in the work role.  The rub comes when your personal values, beliefs, and ways of operating are either more expansive or restrictive than those required of your company and/or role.

This is where this school principal was having a hard time:  He saw this substitute teacher as a “good employee”, so why would the school district care about whether or not she smoked pot at home.  After all, weren’t dependable employees hard to come by?  Why would he need to do anything as long as the substitute wasn’t bringing pot into the workplace?

In short, he was looking at the situation using his more “open” personal values and beliefs, instead of viewing the situation through the lens required of his position as school principal (which dictated that he enforce the school district’s drug policy along with the public policy consideration of holding those working with students to a higher standard than the average Joe).

How easy is it for you to accept and live by the values and beliefs of your company?  As a manager or leader in your company, are you aware of your responsibility to represent the company’s interests even if you don’t fully agree with them?  When you hire new employees (management or otherwise), how do you determine whether or not there is alignment between their personal values and beliefs and those of the company?  And how does your company convey its expectations to managers about carrying out the role as company representative?


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with leaders to maximize the “people side” of business and evolve into the leader they are meant to become. Learn more about her at:

It’s Spring. Time to Renew Your Commitment to Your Work

renew your commitment to workAs the hours of daylight increase and the outside temperature is warming up, I find myself leaving the behind the gray, unmotivated mood of winter and actually feeling . . . cheery.  What a great opportunity to renew my commitment to my work and to spread more sunshine throughout the office.  If you read Shawn Achor’s, The Happiness Advantage (2010), you’ll recognize these simple things you can do to stretch your happiness muscles:

1.    Consciously Re-Focus on the Positive.   It is well-established that we humans pay more attention to negative events than positive.   “ . . . [M]ost findings indicate that people react more strongly to bad than good events.  The evidence covers everything from minor everyday events and brief experimental exposure to objectionable odors to major life events and traumas.  Bad events produce more emotion, have bigger effects on adjustment measures, and have longer lasting effects.”  Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, Vohs (2001).

So, is it any wonder that we drive to work most mornings, dreading what might be in store for us at work?

Aware of this human tendency, you can now counteract the negative bias we all experience and consciously focus on the positive.  To do so, write down 3 good things that occur each day.  Or write about a positive experience at work for 20 minutes, 3 times per week.  Burton, C., & King, L. (2004), The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences.  Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 150-163.  (Concluding that writing about positive experiences for short periods of time led to increased happiness and even led to greater physical well-being).

2.    Reframe Your Work to Find Your Calling.  There’s nothing wrong with seeing your job as just a way to pay the bills.  It’s just more satisfying to think that you’re actually contributing to something larger in the world.  How can you find the meaning in the more unrewarding aspects of your job?  List a task you might define as meaningless.  Next, ask yourself what the purpose is for that task or what it accomplishes.  Keep asking yourself these questions about the task until you hit on a purpose or reason for the task that is more meaningful for you.   In other words, connect the task to something larger or with greater impact in the world.

And to lift your mood even more, watch Shawn Achor talk about happiness in his 12-minute presentation he made at a TED conference.

Leader as Thinker

neuron thinkingIt’s the end of the day, and you’re beat.  You’ve been “on the go” since 7 a.m. and you’re ready to call it a day.  Most of your days seem to go this way. Do you make time to think rather than react all day?

When I ask my clients when they do their strategic thinking, I get predictable responses – everything from a look of “you’ve got to be kidding” to a question like, “Really?  It’s OK to spend my time doing that?”  I take the responses as a symptom of American culture that preaches “to be busy” equals “to be productive”.

But the higher up the corporate food chain you go, the less time you should spend on “being busy” and the more time you can and should spend on thinking.  Insufficient time spent thinking about your business can lessen the quality of the decisions you make about it.

In the Western world, the basis of good solid thinking goes back 2500 years to Socrates in Ancient Greece.  His method involved asking deep questions and probing for answers before accepting an idea of as worthy of belief.   Fast forward to our experiences today, where we spend hours on activities that are quick, immediate, and/or passively mindless, like texting, watching TV, spending time online updating our status, or engaging in various other forms of pure entertainment.  No wonder we find it hard to believe that we ought to spend time engaging our minds in a deep, intellectual pursuit.

“Thinking time” doesn’t have to be spent alone in a locked office working on your company or department’s strategic plan (although that could be very productive).  It can be time you spend walking around a competitor’s retail store, observing how they operate.  It can be lunch in a nearby park, observing the comings and goings of local flora, fauna, and people, which may lead to serendipitous connections later on.  You can walk around your own corporate office, retail store, or manufacturing facility to observe what’s going on.

Would you rather think in tandem with others?  Invite someone out to have a beverage and conversation.  You can even spend your commute time thinking.  Whatever will afford you time for meaningful introspection and reflection is the type of thinking activity that will be beneficial.

The point is that your “thinking time” will provide you with information when you need it later on.  From observations, come connections, and the more connections you make, the better prepared your mind is to draw upon seemingly unrelated information and events that might just provide you with that next brilliant insight.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with women in leadership who want to have more positive impact within their organizations, by gaining greater composure, focus, and influence with their teams. Learn more at:

Working Your Organization System

Here’s how to work through your entire organization system to keep it up-to-date.

1.       Each day, take time to prioritize what you need to do that day.  Spend some time at the beginning of the day (or at the end of the day for tomorrow), looking at what has come up on your calendar or Next Actions list to determine what absolutely needs to be done.  Schedule time on your calendar to do things that will take you 30 minutes or more.  This will help you plan what you can get done and when.

In general, your calendar and your Next Actions list will drive what needs to be done on any given day.  Your priorities will most likely change during the day, but if you plan it out you know what to shoot for, and you’ll have a better chance of getting the main things done.

Don’t forget to check your tickler file if you’re keeping that separate from your calendar.

2.       As items enter your system through your email, your physical inbox, Next Actions list or another capture device, determine what the item is and whether something must be done with it.  If nothing needs to be done with the item, then:

  • Trash it.  Junk mail comes to mind for this category along with notices of events you don’t have an interest in attending, or email that you were only CC’d on and don’t have an interest in;
  • File it away for reference in your topical file in case you ever need it.  Maybe someone sent you an article on “employee performance”.  You don’t need it for anything now, but maybe you will in the future; or
  • Let it simmer.  You’re at dinner with friends who describe their latest trip to Antarctica.  Now you think you might want to go someday.  Put it on a Someday/Maybe list where it will stay until you decide to go or until you decide you’re no longer interested.

If something does need to be done with the item, then:

  •  Do it.  If you’re the person who needs to do it, and it will take you 2 minutes or less to do it, do it as soon as it comes up in your email or physical inbox;
  • Delegate it.  If the item is better handled by someone else, delegate it to him/her.  For example, if you have an administrative assistant, s/he can make those mailing labels for the alumni gathering.  You don’t have to.  When you delegate something, make sure you’re clear with who will do it and when it needs to be done.  Make note on a Waiting On list, so you can follow up if needed when you review that list; or
  • Defer it.  If you’re the person who must take action with the item, and it will take longer than 2 minutes to do it, then defer it by putting it on your calendar for the date and/or time that you need to do it.  Maybe it goes on your Agenda for a particular person or meeting, or maybe it should go in your tickler file for a later date.

3.      Review your lists at least once a week.  Check on your . . .

  • Waiting On list for things you’ve delegated to someone else.  Do you need to follow up to find out how things are going?
  • Next Actions list for the next steps to take on various projects.  Is there something you can do in the coming week(s) to move a project forward?
  • Someday/Maybe list to see if you’re ready to do an item from this list . . . or maybe you’ve decided to cross things off this list because you’re no longer interested.
  • Agendas to make sure you are keeping track of items for meeting agendas or to bring up the next time you see a particular person.

Ultimately, you should have the least number of lists to keep you organized.  The goal is not to have a complex system but to have the simplest system that works for you.  If you find yourself not working your organization system from time to time, don’t worry.  It’s easy to get back into it.  And you know that you feel better and more in control of your work when you keep your system updated.  For more tips on self-organization, I recommend the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Self-Organization: Capturing Items and Managing Projects

In an earlier blog entry, I talked about the beginnings of getting organized, including organizing your files, creating a tickler file, and processing through everything in your inboxes every day.  Now, let’s look at capturing and managing all projects you have on your plate.  Remember:  the idea is to get things out of your head, through your inboxes (physical and/or email) and into your organization system, so they can be handled timely and by the right people.

1. Have a capture tool with you always for work and personal items.  A capture tool?  That’s just a fancy way of saying that you need to be able to record every thought about something that needs to be done when it occurs to you.  You probably already have a grocery list on your refrigerator – that’s a capture tool.  As soon as you notice you’re out of milk, you put it on the grocery list, so the next time you’re at the grocery story, you don’t forget to pick up milk.  Have you ever gone to the store thinking you’ll just remember all 6 items you need, but once you get to the store, you can only remember 5?  Yep.  Should have used a list (a capture tool).

Your capture tool can be a small note pad and pen, the electronic memo or task function on your PDA or cell phone, or a voice recorder.  Whatever works for you and is portable.  So, when you get home from work and remember that you need to call Joe Schmoe tomorrow about the Smith account, you can write it down on your note pad, type it into your PDA or cell phone task list, or record the reminder on a voice recorder.  (Only one method required – not all three.)  The idea is that if you “capture” the thought, you won’t fret all evening or lose sleep trying not to forget to make the important phone call the next day.  Capture it and forget it until you’re where you can deal with the item.  And don’t worry about keeping personal and business items separate.  Capture everything together.  You might need to pick up a birthday card for Aunt Martha during your lunch hour, so get it down somewhere.  The timing of when you can complete personal projects and business projects overlap much of the time because business hours needed for information or service for your personal projects are the same business hours you’re at work.

2. Create a Projects List that includes both personal and work items.  A project is anything that takes more than 1 step to do.  For example, “Clean the house on Saturday” could involve these steps: (1) check for needed cleaning supplies, (2) vacuum the carpet, (3) dust the furniture, (4) clean the bathtubs, (5) clean the sinks, etc.  Now even if you write down, “Clean the house on Saturday”, chances are you will become overwhelmed thinking of the project as a whole.  Ugh!  But if you break it down step by step, you need only muster up the energy to do the next piece, which usually isn’t so bad.

So, your project list might include both personal and work items:

  • Clean the house on Saturday
  • Get cleaning supplies
  • Vacuum carpet
  • Dust furniture
  • Clean bathtubs
  • Clean sinks
  • Create new employee appreciation program
  • Call to George at XYZ Company to find out what they do for employee appreciation
  • Talk to HR about doing an employee survey
  • Invite Bob, Mary, Jim, and Sue to be on an employee appreciation committee

Don’t be surprised if your project list has 50+ projects on it.  Take the time to capture it all, so you’ve identified all the balls you have in the air.  It will feel good to get everything down where you can see it.  And again, your Project List can be on paper or electronic.  Don’t worry if you can’t think of EVERY step required for each project.  As you work through the steps of the project, you’ll see what you need to add.  That leads to the Next Actions list.

3. A Next Actions list contains those things that are ready to be done.  This list contains those things that must happen as soon as you can do them – personal and professional.  From your Inbox, Tickler file, and Projects list, you can determine what your Next Actions are for the next week or so.  Next Actions that must happen on a particular day and/or time can go on your calendar.  Other Next Actions may not be time sensitive, in which case, you’ll keep them on your Next Actions list until you do them.  Again, the Next Actions list can be on paper or kept electronically.

If you have more than, say, 25 items on your Next Actions list, you might want to categorize them to make it easier to manage.  Categories might include:

  • Phone Calls
  • Errands
  • Computer Work
  • At Home
  • Agenda Items (for people and meetings)
  • Read/Review
  • Waiting For (anything you’re waiting for someone else to do)

Use categories that make sense for you.  You’ll need to review your Projects and Next Actions lists at least once per week to make sure you’re on track.

Get Organized – Getting Started

Confused with the flurry of paperwork and email that flows through your office daily?  Tired of living among piles of paperwork on your desk or on the floor?  Are your file drawers chock full of documents that you haven’t looked at in ages?  Where did you file that electronic file from 2 years ago that you need in 5 minutes?

You might need to get organized by managing the influx of physical and electronic documents.

It’s estimated that corporate executives waste 6 weeks per year searching for lost documents. (Fast Company Magazine, August 2004).  How can you make sure your are set up to increase your productivity simply by organizing your workspace?

1.  Tidy up the clutter. Your best weapon?  A file cabinet that meets your needs, doesn’t fight you, and is within arm’s reach of your desk.  File drawers should be no more than 75% full to make accessing files easily.  Use typed labels in a simple A-Z system.  Put 1 manila file folder per hanging file, too, so overstuffed files don’t obscure the labels on the files behind them.  Remember to clean out and/or archive old files once per year.  Label things clearly and logically enough so you can find a file within 1 minute.

Your computer files should be just as organized and de-cluttered.  At least once per year, archive or delete files from your desktop.  Re-arrange your file structure periodically as your focus changes and as you archive older files.  You should be able to find any computer file within 1 minute as well.

2.  Create a “tickler” file or system to remind you of tasks you need to do in the future.  This can be a physical tickler file, or you can create “tasks” and/or “recurrences” of appointments on your electronic calendar.  If creating a physical tickler file, create a file folder for each of the twelve months of the year (Jan through Dec.) and create 31 separate file folders (numbered 1-31) to account for up to 31 days/month.  If it’s September, put the September file in front, followed by the 31 daily folders.  (The rest of the monthly folders are now behind the 31 daily folders in order beginning with October.)

Place notes, invitations, fliers, etc. in the monthly folder during which you need to attend to them.  For the current month (in this case, September), put the items requiring attention in the particular daily folder that you’ll take care of them.  Each day, check the daily folder for the current month and take care of the items inside.  When you start a new month, move that month to the front, followed by folders 1-31, and sort the tickler items from the monthly folder and disperse them throughout the daily folders.

3.  Clear out your physical and email inboxes everyday by addressing everything in them.  For your email inbox, create storage folders for items that you want to save, that you will address later, or for messages you will forward to someone else to take care of.  Move your incoming mail to a folder if you’re not going to take care of it right away.  Set up email rules for certain incoming email, so it will automatically file itself.  For example, if you are CC’d on email frequently, set up a rule that sends anything you’re CC’d on directly to an email folder for these items.  Check email only twice per day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Your physical inbox should be managed the same way.  With both your email and physical inboxes, trash it, delegate, put it on hold, or get it done.  Remember to:

  • Process the top item first
  • Process one item at a time
  • Never put anything back

With these basics in place, you’ll be well on your way to staying in control of the steady flow of work that comes through your office.  Next time: managing larger projects with a Project List.