Do you regularly feel taken advantage of or that unreasonable requests are being made of you?

If so – you might need to set some boundaries. 

It’s the nature of the beast – especially for working mums juggling challenging senior legal careers with the pressures of a growing family. It’s not that there’s an army of evil people out there waiting to pounce and take advantage of you – it’s just that in a high-performing and competitive environment like a law firm, demands will be made of you constantly – some of which will be reasonable and some of which won’t. In order to maintain control over your own work/life balance, then, you will need to set boundaries over how you expect to be treated. 

But why should you have to make all the effort? Surely it’s your boss’s problem for overloading you, or another colleague’s fault for ‘landing you in it’? Surely you have every right to be resentful about your employer’s outrageous expectations of you?

Well, yes, it would be wonderful to work for a boss who was ever mindful of the demands on your time and made this his or her number one priority. In reality though, most leaders are too busy or under too much pressure to deliver themselves, and to be this thoughtful about individual employees. And that’s assuming they even care enough to want to! (Some do, others don’t). All of which means you can’t leave it to others to only ever make reasonable demands of you or to be thinking about your work/life balance. You need to set boundaries so that you make it clear how you want to be treated and how you are prepared to work. It’s up to you to take control of your own needs and to find and protect your own career/family balance.

So – boundaries are necessary. But how do you go about setting them?

1. Examine your beliefs.
If you find yourself always saying yes to others, no matter how unreasonable their demands, then the first step is to get to grips with your beliefs about saying no. For example, a common belief is that if you say no, you’ll be putting your career at risk, and/or will be considered less valuable or worthy of promotion. If this is you, think about that belief for a moment. Then look around you at those who are ahead, who are most valued and respected. Did they get to where they are now because they always said yes to whatever came their way? Or is it actually because they asserted themselves and commanded respect? Question your beliefs.

2. Think about your ‘yes’ list.
Brainstorm all the things you would say yes to without hesitation. Choose work or home to focus on – for example, the promotion you’ve been working towards; an invitation to grab a drink after work from a colleague who is also a great friend; a new deal from your favourite client; a favour being asked of you by someone in the office who has always supported you; items that fall clearly within your job description, etc. This is your ‘Enthusiastic Yes’ list.

3. Think about your ‘no’ list.
Brainstorm all the things you would definitely say no to. Uncategorically – off the top of your head. Don’t limit yourself here, think of as many demands as you can that would appall or perhaps even horrify you so much that saying no would not be an issue. For example, an inappropriate pass from a colleague; being handed a menial task for which you are overqualified by someone junior to you; an invitation to do something illegal, or someone attempting to injure you or cross a physical boundary. This is your your ‘Non-negotiable No’ list.

4. Consider the spectrum in between these two extremes.
For every other request or demand, you need to be able to evaluate them on their merits and decide where on the spectrum they sit. One way of making this easier is to add markers along your spectrum. You can define these how you like – here are some markers that I offer to clients:

the conditional yes.
(I will be talking about this next week in “`Managing Expectations”) This is saying yes, but on your terms. ie. “Yes, provided that….” For example, “Yes I agree to complete this task, provided I get all the information in time; or provided that someone is available to help”; or “Yes I’ll go the extra mile, provided I am appropriately compensated.”

– the helpful no.
This is saying no, but suggesting another solution. I do this frequently at home – to my children and to my husband Paul when I want to set boundaries about what they can expect of me. I am constantly vigilant about saying no in a way that enables them to be more self sufficient and less dependent on me! I say no, but offer them advice on what they could do instead.

– the strategic no.
This is when you could say yes, but you want to educate others about how they should treat you. This has proven to be a very useful strategy for a client recently – a senior lawyer who frequently found herself coming to her team’s rescue when a deadline loomed. Frustrated with the way her team wasted time during the day and left things until the last minute, she used the strategic no to show her team that they couldn’t rely on her to bail them out all the time. Another client used a strategic no to educate her boss. He was always on, always working out of hours and expected to be able to call on her all through the weekend. Her strategic no demonstrated that she was not ‘at his disposal’ at the weekends as a matter of course, and set boundaries between her work and personal life that had previously been overlooked.

There’s no magic formula for what you say yes or no to, but when you feel you are being taken advantage of, or unreasonable demands are being made of you, it helps to have a range of responses that you can call on to give you more influence over the demands that are made of you. In this way, you are setting boundaries for how you want others to treat you. When you have boundaries, you have control. When you have control, you have balance – and that’s what we’re all searching for, after all.

Bring your awareness this week to the demands and requests others make of you and the responses you give. Where you answer yes or no instinctively, make a conscious effort to understand the motivations behind these answers. Where, on the other hand, you hesitate or feel unsure or unwilling, consider the options you have about how to respond and choose a response that will set appropriate boundaries for how you want to be treated. Look out for my next two blogs and podcasts on the same subject.