workplace boundaries, appease

Better Workplace Boundaries: Saying “No” Strategically

You might be feeling overworked or overwhelmed because there doesn’t seem to be enough time for you to do what you want and must do. So many people want you to weigh in or work on something. So many tasks need to be accomplished now! You might feel torn in so many directions, or feel you’re not moving forward with the important or critical work.

It’s hard to hear, but chances are it’s mostly your own fault.

If this sounds like your experience, it’s very possible you established boundaries that serve everyone else instead of you. Consequently, your boundaries aren’t working for sanity or productivity (although they might be serving your ego identity and that will be another blog post for the future).

Why would you put yourself in the position of being pulled in too many directions for your own good? As a woman, there are biological and cultural forces that might be contributing.

Female Biology and Cultural Attitudes Encourage Women to Foster Relationships

Biologically, research using brain scans shows that female brain structure and function put a premium on bonding with others and building relationships. Additionally, the female hormone estrogen and the hormone oxytocin (usually higher in females), promote bonding with others. Moreover, many cultural norms expect women to be “warm”, accommodating, and passive.

While there’s nothing wrong with showing warmth, putting others first, and not always getting your own way, it’s not always required or even healthy for you to put your needs, wants, and priorities last. When your own attention and priorities slip to the bottom of the list on a regular basis, you’ll feel negative emotions, such as taken for granted, underappreciated, or overwhelmed. You can avoid these feelings by enforcing healthy boundaries that serve to honor your priorities while allowing you to be a team player who appropriately pitches in to assist others.

In order to do this, you’ll want to consciously and strategically choose when to say “no” to protect your own time, attention, and energy and when to work on others’ priorities for the good of your team or company.

If your plate is already full, here are some guidelines for when, to whom, and how to say “no”:

Who’s Asking?

Consider your experience and position. The more senior you are, the more leeway you have to “say no” to others with less experience or seniority, unless it will be good for your career in the company; gives you desired/important job skills; or will be personally gratifying.

As a general rule, you will honor requests from your boss or other senior leader. If that feeling of overwhelm creeps in, work with your boss to ensure you both agree how you will re-prioritize your other projects and tasks as necessary.

When Saying “No” Is Warranted.

Consider declining a request for your time, attention, and energy when the request does not come from your boss and when at least one of the following is true:

  • The work does not align or correspond with your current personal and work priorities.
  • You can’t accept the request without your other work priorities suffering;
  • The requested work does not offer you a significant opportunity for learning or career development; or

Another way to look at it is consider saying “yes” if the requested work fits in with your current priorities; you can take it on without putting your own work on hold; or the requested work is a great opportunity to learn or meet other people that will be great for your current position or your career trajectory in general.

How to Say “No” Without Appearing Uncaring or Selfish.

In general, it’s best to say “no” as little as possible and in line with your current time commitments and career aspirations. One suggestion is to indicate you’ll accept if certain conditions can be met. For example, you could say, “YES, I am happy to be a part of that project IF it will only take about an hour of my time each week.”

Other ways to say “no” include:

  • Indicate that the relationship is important by being gracious when “saying no”.
  • Take time to consider the request before declining. A fast, abrupt “no” can leave the other person believing you didn’t even listen to what they asked.
  • Be clear that you are saying “no”. Too much sugar-coating or hemming and hawing will bury your “no” and lead to misunderstandings.
    Show respect by declining requests in person if possible.
  • Don’t refuse a request just because it’s outside your comfort zone. Say “yes” if it won’t take away from your current focus and/or is related to your work priorities, learning, or career development.

You probably say “yes” to many requests to look like a team player when you really don’t need to. It’s okay to decline a request. However, when you do say “no”, it won’t always be easy. Keep in mind you are going against your biology and family or cultural norms. So, be smart about how you decline a request. Others will respect knowing where your boundaries are, and you’ll teach them over time when to ask.

WANT TO USE THIS  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:

What to Do When Your “Open Door” Becomes the Gateway to Drama

Open Door PolicyA well-intentioned “Open Door” policy can become its most problematic policy.  The purpose of these policies is to foster communication between rank and file employees and management in order to share ideas and to address issues of concern such as safety, productivity, pay, etc.  So far, so good. (Most companies have separate policies and procedures distinct from the Open Door policy, which allow employees to lodge formal complaints about safety violations or discrimination and harassment issues for formal investigation.)

As with most issues inside organizations, it’s not the Open Door policy itself that’s the problem – it’s the implementation.  Sadly, most organizations are unaware that their desire to foster open communication between employees and management actually fuels drama and a lack of accountability.  This occurs because most Open Door policies are mismanaged by overly-helpful supervisors and used by unhappy employees who didn’t get what they wanted. The result is a lot of unproductive conversation and reinforcing the notion that complaining employees simply need to dump their unhappiness at a supervisor’s feet in hopes that the supervisor will charge off and give a co-worker or a lower level supervisor “what for”.

Common issues that come through the “open door” sound like,
• “My co-worker (or supervisor) is mean to me.”
• “My supervisor won’t let me take vacation.”
• “Sally doesn’t pull her weight, and I’m tired of doing her job.”

In my experience, the most common misuse of the Open Door policy occurs when an employee disagrees with something that’s going on and believes his perspective is the right perspective, while everyone else is to blame.  This could involve anything from disagreements with a co-worker to disagreeing with decisions made by a supervisor, receiving negative feedback, disliking an assigned task, or being denied time off.  In these situations, no policy has been violated, and there is no inappropriate supervisory behavior (although the employee might intimate there is).  The employee simply doesn’t like what a co-worker or supervisor communicated, decided, or assigned. So the unhappy employee goes shopping for a sympathetic ear and someone to solve the problem.

This is highly problematic as it usually sucks everyone into a drama triangle. The employee, playing the role of Victim, complains of a co-worker or supervisor, who is (often unwittingly) cast in the role of Persecutor because he interfered with something the employee wanted.  The unhappy employee walks through the “open door” as Victim to visit a supervisor, seeking a Rescuer, who will heroically step in to save the day, magically solve the employee’s problem, and right the alleged “wrong”. And most supervisors take the bait and are easily sucked into this.

Meanwhile, work has been interrupted and productivity declines.

With a little boundary setting and just-in-time employee coaching, these types of situations can be diffused and turned around relatively quickly with the employee retaining the responsibility for accounting for their own behavior and solving their own problems. Here are some tips to avoid drama, empower employees, reinforce accountability, and avoid being dumped on, triangulated, or manipulated into Rescuer mode:

1. Stop Interpreting the Term “Open Door” Literally.

An Open Door policy does NOT require managers to keep their doors open 100 % of the time and be 100% available to 100% of everyone who stops by.  This is highly inefficient and not helpful.

Instead, an “open door” signifies an open attitude to discussing issues of concern with employees. This may mean that an employee schedules a time to talk, or that the employee meets with the manager during specified “Open Office Hours” when employees are indeed free to drop by without appointment.

Making oneself so accessible only trains employees to reactively run to managers to have their problems solved for them. In fact, it’s likely that managers who make themselves so available have a need to be needed.  Having to wait even an hour to meet with a manager can sometimes calm an employee enough that he decides the issue isn’t worth involving someone else.

2. Inform Your Team of Your Availability.

Let your employees know when you hold “open office hours” with no appointment needed or that they should schedule a time to talk if necessary. It’s also good to make sure every understands the signs for when you are not available, such as a closed door, closed blinds, etc.

3. Ban Your Inner Rescuer and Learn to Act as a Coach.

Need to be needed?  It does feel good to be the one to save someone in distress, but that’s not the job of a leader.  Instead, as a leader, you are charged with building the capacity of everyone you work with, and capacity is not built by solving issues for others or saving them from uncomfortable circumstances that they can work through on their own.

Rather, you build capacity by assisting others to examine the situation, list options, and choose something they can do to address the situation.  For example, instead of getting mad at a co-worker for something that didn’t happen or went wrong, the employee might be better off asking the co-worker what she can do to help, so that situation doesn’t happen again. Alternatively, guided by a supervisor’s questions, the employee may decide the issue is more appropriately raised in a team meeting.

The worst thing a leader can do is to intervene on behalf of an employee and inadvertently send the message that the employee is not capable of solving most of her own issues.

4. Train Supervisors.

Make sure your supervisors understand all workplace rules, policies, and procedures, so they are less likely to run afoul of them to the detriment of their direct reports.  Also, train supervisors to coach employees through issues so they do what they can within their control. This builds even more capacity within the organization.

5. Require Both Parties to Take Issues Up the Line of Report Together.

Under an Open Door policy, the vast majority of issues will go away if you require the employee (and supervisor) to be accountable for what she can do within her control under the circumstances. Unfortunately, many companies unwittingly reinforce the notion of employees as victims by allowing and even encouraging a complaining employee to circumvent the immediate supervisor and to meet with the boss’s boss (or higher) to complain under an Open Door policy. This simply reinforces the drama triangle dynamic.

In fact, I have never seen an issue come up through an Open Door policy that couldn’t be solved by having the parties examine their own capability and accountability.

For the sake of argument, if an issue appropriately escalates up the chain of command, require the parties to shepherd the issue to the next level together.  This reinforces the assumption of trust between employees and management and avoids the triangulation that can occur when only one side of the story is presented in isolation.  To reiterate, the overarching theme should always be to put the accountability squarely back on the shoulders of each person involved.

No one wants to see anyone in the workplace treated unfairly or to have unaddressed issues negatively affect the work.  Mechanisms, like Open Door policies, that encourage raising issues for resolution are necessary.  However, when the way in which we implement such policies reinforces notions of disempowered victimhood and allow for unproductive drama to get in the way of priorities and focus, it’s time to step back and determine how all employees can be encouraged to be accountable, especially when things don’t go as planned.

anger; confrontation

Are You Leading or Bullying?

I feel like you’re intimidating and bullying me.”  These are the words of a female employee during a meeting with her male supervisor, who intended to set expectations with her. The supervisor was taken aback and started to question his behavior.

With stories of bullying of children frequently in the news, it makes us stop and think.  So, how do you know whether you are leading or bullying?

Keep in mind that a few employees will attempt to deflect attention away from themselves, especially when a work issue is being addressed.  One thing they may say, whether they really believe it or not, is that you are bullying” them.  It’s as though some believe that no one – not even their supervisor – has a right to set or clarify expectations for them at work.

Also, some employees may use the word “intimidation” when describing what it felt like when they were called into the boss’s office to discuss a performance issue.  Well, sure, it can be intimidating, especially for those who know deep down they’ve failed in their work commitment.  But that doesn’t mean the boss was purposefully intimidating and is a bully. But it does get at the fact that the use and misuse of power and authority is at the heart of bullying when the boss is involved.

Distinguishing  Bullying Behavior

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is a “laser-focused”, “systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction” that has nothing to do with work itself and that negatively impacts the employee’s health, career and job.  A bullying campaign targets an employee for no good work reason. Such a campaign can cause the employee, who otherwise does acceptable work, to feel hopeless about the situation. Those targeted by bullying tend to be good workers, who are “independent” and not easily “subservient”.  G. Namie, The Challenge of Workplace Bullying, Employment Relations Today, 2007, 34(2), pp.43-51.

To help clarify, these are examples of when your behavior could be that of a “bully” instead of  that of a “leader/supervisor”:

During a performance review, the supervisor is intentionally biased or gives inaccurate feedback because he doesn’t like the employee even though the employee is a good performer.
During a performance review, the supervisor shares honest, substantiated feedback with the employee, whether or not he likes the employee as a person.
The supervisor deliberately excludes an employee from workplace meetings and activities for no good reason or for a concocted reason while other employees on the same team or in the same job classification attend.
The supervisor includes an employee in workplace meetings and activities that other employees on the same team or in the same job classification attend, even if the employee is not the best performer.
The supervisor instigates, encourages, or fails to stop others from spreading malicious gossip, jokes or rumors about an employee.
The supervisor refrains from joking about, gossiping or spreading rumors about any employees and addresses such passive aggressive behavior with other employees. Instead, the supervisor addresses any problematic conduct or performance with an employee directly and privately, giving them an opportunity to give their version of the situation.
The supervisor pesters, spies, or stalks the employee with no business reason for doing so.
The supervisor monitors all employees’ whereabouts and productivity if there is a business reason for doing so, and documents and addresses any issues of attendance or productivity privately with an employee, giving them an opportunity to give their version of the situation.
The supervisor criticizes or belittles the employee persistently or allows others to do so without saying anything.
The supervisor speaks privately with the employee if there are documented conduct or performance issues, getting the employee’s explanation during the conversation.
The supervisor metes out undeserved or unwarranted punishment to an employee.
The supervisor addresses only work related issues, gathering all relevant information regarding a situation, including the employee’s version of events, before deciding whether or not to discipline an employee for workplace misconduct.
The supervisor consistently gives a good performer assignments that are beneath his position to create a feeling of uselessness.
The supervisor holds all employees accountable to job performance standards and documents/addresses sub-standard performance with interventions such as re-training, job shadowing, etc.

The manner in which the supervisor interacts with an employee in any situation can increase or decrease the employee’s perception of being bullied, even if the supervisor’s behavior is not out of line. So, as a leader and supervisor, know when it’s appropriate to address a workplace situation with employees and do it professionally and respectfully.

co-dependent manager

Enabling Versus Empowering in the Workplace

Do you have employees who are poor performers or who don’t get along with others and who have been in your company for too long?  Why?

There is no reason why you should tolerate employees who continually produce substandard work, exhibit unsatisfactory attendance, or who behave badly as a general rule.  Yet, you, like most leaders, have at least a few of these employees.  The sad fact is that you have no one to blame but yourself.  Even in the public sector, where employees are entitled to “due process” before they are fired or demoted, it is very do-able to address the performance and behavior issues and even discharge someone, if warranted.

The issue is often includes a co-dependent manager, who would rather be liked than hold the employee accountable.  Another word for it is “enabling”.  Enabling behavior encourages the “bad” employee to continue being bad.  It’s the same dynamic between loved ones and an addict, which prevents the addict from addressing her addiction –like allowing drug use in your home or giving the alcoholic money for rent because she used the rent money to buy booze.  If you are “walking on eggshells” around an employee in your organization and avoiding a necessary conversation about unmet expectations, chances are, you are part of an enabling dynamic.

When you are an “enabler”, you prevent or interfere with holding the employee accountable to acquire new competencies.  It keeps her stuck in her unproductive performance and poor behavior.  Enabling keeps the employee believing she has no power or control over her life , her work, and her self-efficacy.  You become complicit in reinforcing unproductive behavior such as procrastination or passivity by not expecting more.  In short, if you are a co-dependent manager, you are silently communicating that the “bad” employee is not capable of changing and is not capable of taking responsibility for her performance or her actions.

Here are some examples:

  • Looking the other way when the employee mistreats a customer or co-worker.
  • Talking yourself out of addressing an issue as you pretend “it isn’t that bad”.
  • Giving the employee adequate performance reviews, so you don’t have to justify your observations of inadequate performance.

By avoiding the issue, you are effectively ignoring your duty to the organization and to the rest of the employees who are meeting company expectations.

If you are enabling an employee, you might fear the reaction from an under-performer if you address the work issues. Like the addict or alcoholic, the enabled employee will most likely have an emotional outburst that deflects the attention away from herself as she points the finger at others, including you.  Not a comfortable place to be.  In short, it’s just easier to tolerate the substandard employee and hope it doesn’t get any worse than it already is.

The healthier way of dealing with the substandard employee is to expect more of her by empowering her.  But this takes guts, an acknowledgment that it’s your job as a manager to do this, and a belief that it is better to respected than to be liked.

Empowering is behavior that expects the employee to acquire new competencies for better performance.  It increases the employee’s sense of control or power over a situation, and encourages the learning of new coping abilities to replace the unwanted behavior or performance.

What does empowering look like?  Good old-fashioned management:

  1. Talk to the employee about what you are experiencing, giving her a chance to explain;
  2. Restate your expectation for what acceptable work product or behavior looks like;
  3. Offer or require training if appropriate for the issue at hand;
  4. If applicable to the situation, ask the employee for options for how she can do things differently to achieve the results you expect;
  5. Follow up and follow through with the employee to make sure the necessary changes are taking place;
  6. If the necessary changes do not occur, start summarizing your conversations about performance or behavior with the employee in writing, and escalate the formality of the written summaries from a warning to reprimands to a letter of suspension or termination as warranted and according to your company policy.

As with many things, if you want an employee to change, you might have to change first.