Sometimes you have to fight for your boundaries

I was sitting in my doctor’s office for an early-morning appointment. I would be back home, and back to work, by 9:00 AM, so I didn’t need to take any time off. As I was sitting in the waiting room, my boss called. I would call him back on the way home, I thought, since this is before my regular work hours and it wasn’t really appropriate to take a call when I was about to be called into the exam room.

He left a message, and simply said, “call me back when you can.” Okay, I thought, that’s exactly what I would do. There was no sense of urgency or more information in the message. At this point, my anxiety was already ramping up, since he never called me this early unless it was a fire drill to do something that was in the “other duties as assigned” category. He also had a bad habit of crossing work boundaries, calling at crazy hours and then chastising me when I didn’t answer immediately, regardless of the hour or day.

A minute later, he called again as I was getting called into the exam room. At this point, I was definitely unable to answer. Then he called again as I was getting my blood pressure checked, which was a mistake. I had to have the nurse take my blood pressure three times to get it down to a reasonable number.

By the time I was waiting for the doctor, I had two more calls and messages: one from my employee, and one from a contractor. Both were telling me that I needed to call my boss back, because he had reached out to them to track me down. I turned off my phone as my blood pressure skyrocketed yet again.

It was at this point that I resolved to speak with the doctor about my growing anxiety and the need for professional help. The doctor helped me calm down a bit, provided me with a referral to a therapist, and provided me with a few minutes to relax before sending me off to get my day started.

On the way home, I called my boss back, and was sent to voicemail. I called an hour later, and again went to voicemail. When I finally spoke with him at the end of the day, I found out that he was calling me to get a document that I had sent to him a couple of weeks prior but he couldn’t find in his email. The rest of the conversation was him chewing me out for not answering the phone immediately when he called.

Phones are not leashes
Unless being on call is part of your job description, being a distance worker does not mean you are available all the time. In my situation, my boss had a history of ignoring boundaries that I had set as reasonable. At first, I treated the calls on the weekends and evenings as emergencies, but over time I realized that these “emergencies” were the result of poor leadership. There was no emergency, only panic that he was passing on to me.

Unfortunately, I had helped set this pattern up by being so responsive at first when I took this role. My initial instinct is to support, provide, and respond to be a good worker and a good boss, but what I was essentially doing was building a 24×7 work mentality. I also carried my work phone around with me “just in case,” but this particular experience taught me that my phone should not be my leash.

You and your employees need time away from work
The same goes for your employees: you should expect them to work hard, but only during business hours. As a leader, being able to reach your employees within a reasonable amount of time is, well, reasonable. This experience taught me that every employee needs time during his or her non-work hours to be away from work. Even during work hours, I do not expect my employees to be immediately responsive, especially if they are working on big projects or (gasp!) are in the bathroom.

Remember, even during office hours, you and your employees need to attend to multiple priorities, and that may supersede your employees answering your call or calling you back immediately. Trusting your employees to treat your calls and messages with respect is a critical behavior pattern that ensures a quick response when it is absolutely necessary.

Leave (and send) a real message
When you get your employee’s voicemail, please leave a meaningful message. “Call me back” is not sufficient. “Call me back before 2:00 if you can, please. I need to go over the licensing notes with you before I have a call at 2:30 with the steering committee” is much better. Expressing urgency is okay, but give some context so your employees know what you need and your conversation can be more productive: “Please call me back when you get this. I just got a new urgent client project and need to talk to you right away.”

Set up texting codes that make sense for you and your teams. Starting messages with Urgent, “NU” for Not Urgent, CM for Check (your) Mail and “NCB” for Need Call Back can each have their own urgency protocol associated with it. For example, a message marked Urgent would bring me out of a meeting where I wasn’t presenting or I would respond with a phone call at the earliest possible break. When I got a message marked CM, I would make a point of checking my mail and then following up promptly. Use the context of your work and organization to determine what is best for your team.

Be smart about your boundaries
One of the leading authorities on personal boundary-building is Dr. Henry Cloud. In his book, Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge, Dr. Cloud has a whole chapter on the emotional climate that helps people perform more effectively (Cloud, 2013, Chapter 4). His review of toxic emotions triggering emotional outbursts is similar to what I was enduring with my boss. I had not set up effective limits with my boss, and I really struggled emotionally with constantly having my boundaries ignored.

Dr. Cloud suggests establishing clear expectations and avoiding giving feedback that does not create more fear and stress. When communicating with your team, allowing your stresses to leak out through angry remarks or punitive statements will only create damage, not better performance. Another strategy is to be clear in feedback that is less likely to be perceived as harsh, critical, or demeaning.

The Process

As a distance leader, there are a few things you can do to promote a healthy work-life balance and set reasonable boundaries. Here are a few steps to take:

  • Talk about work boundaries. This step is the big one, so make it count! Talk about starting and ending work times, your expectations for responses to phone calls, and how you can use your communication tools to express urgency.
  • Put the phone down. If you carry a separate work phone, get in the habit of putting that phone away during non-office hours. I personally put mine in silent mode in my bedroom. Before I go to bed, I will check my phone to see if there is anything that needs to be addressed before the next day, but really, I could just wait until the next workday starts.
  • Pause your emails. Many email systems can be adjusted to deliver mail during specific days and hours, and then go into a “holding pattern” during off hours. See what yours can do so your phone does not become a “work leash.”
  • Develop your team “codes.” What tools can you use to establish urgency or communicate response expectations? Whether it’s texting codes, writing your expectations in the subject lines of emails, or putting a due date in a project invitation to team members, your team should have a consistent method for reaching out in a respectful, boundary-oriented way.
  • Check in periodically. Boundaries have a habit of creeping in strange directions if not managed properly. By having the boundary conversations periodically and fine-tuning expectations with the team, you will be setting the stage for happier, more productive work in your teams.

The Results he Results of Setting Work Boundaries as a Distance Leader

Do you have any other ideas / experience / thoughts for setting boundaries for work?

Comment with your answers below!

Links

Dr. Cloud’s style and message make Boundaries for Leaders an easy read. I found a lot of my own experiences echoed in Chapter 4: The emotional climate that makes brains perform. With many examples and conceptual frameworks, this book is an effective tool for exploring boundary development for leadership roles.

References

Cloud, H. (2013). Boundaries for leaders: Results, relationships, and being ridiculously in charge. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 

Photo credit: Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash

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