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:

2 Signs You’re a Leader Who Kills With Kindness

working together, leadership

You see yourself as one of the most caring leaders on the planet. You really listen to your employees and their complaints. You work hard to create good relationships with your direct reports, seeking to be a special type of boss to them.

You do what you can to make things better for a distressed employee, whether that is:

  • disregarding policy to give someone extra leave;
  • loaning money to an employee who can’t make ends meet;
  • frequently adjusting someone’s work schedule to accommodate their busy personal life even if it doesn’t make sense for the business; or
  • allowing an employee to miss a deadline because you didn’t want to be the bad guy.

The current research points to “likeability” (meaning treating others with respect) as a valuable leadership trait. Yet, you routinely go beyond seeking respect when you:

Focus Excessively on the Relationship.

You see self as caring and take pride in that. You consider leaders who are “task-focused” to be uncaring louts. However, you take kindness and caring to extremes. To let employees know you are “on their side”, you might find yourself gossiping or leaking bits of confidential information to them. You might even bad-mouth other leaders in the company to curry favor with direct reports. You flatter employees or do nice things for them with a hidden agenda of getting loyalty, recognition or a compliment back. You have a hard time saying “no”.

Consequently, you placate an employee by ignoring applicable policies or work expectations when an individual exception isn’t warranted. You often choose to do a favor for one direct report over the long-term cohesiveness or “good” of the group. However, when others don’t reciprocate your kindness in ways you expect, you feel resentful.

Have Poor Boundaries.

Your intent focus on creating a special relationship with others leads to poor boundaries. This shows up as giving unsolicited advice or sharing too much about your personal life in hopes that others will trust you with their secrets, which you believe validates you as a caring boss.

An indication of poor physical boundaries includes putting your arm around someone’s shoulder to show understanding or hugging others when a handshake is customary.  Beyond the physical boundaries, you stay too involved your direct reports’ work assignments and jump into to rescue them by doing the work or solving problems for them when they run into snags.

It feels so good to be the person others go to for help and advice. Ah, the exhilaration of being needed!  Except that when you do for your employees what they can do for themselves, you’ve made it about your competence instead of about their personal and professional growth. Give them permission to fail and to learn from experience. Support their evolution as individuals who are resilient, resourceful and strong.