How has the beginning of the year been for you? Are you thriving or thinking that if the day was a few hours longer it still wouldn’t be enough?

It’s no mystery we’re in a difficult period in the mobile industry. I was recently talking to a coworker who was feeling worried and overworked and seemed frantic. We agreed that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It may feel like nothing we do is truly enough but as leaders we have a responsibility to put our oxygen masks on first. Burnt-out people seldom make the best decisions.

But how do we practice this day-to-day? The solution should be straightforward: set boundaries between work and life. Save some time for ourselves. But if we know the theory, why is it so hard in practice?

When do boundaries work, and when do they not?

Boundaries should be like a fence with a gate that allows the good in and keeps the bad out. They are guardrails on our physical safety, our time, and our relationships.

In day-to-day work, we most often encounter time-based and relationship-based boundaries, but the second significantly influences the first. You can be determined to leave work at 5 pm to be on time for your child’s school pick-up but if a coworker keeps setting essential meetings that run until 5:30, that boundary will be ruined.

Therefore, let’s talk about how to set personal boundaries, when they are likely to be successful, and when not, based on research findings in this area*.

The first thing to know when trying to integrate personal life into the work environment is that there are three main ways of doing it:

  • Direct boundary setting — tell your line manager why you need to leave at 5
  • Impression management — tell some coworkers the exact reason and others just that there’s a previous engagement
  • Self-management — tell yourself that those who see you leave at 5 will understand

You probably recognize those methods and use them frequently. However, they can also be applied in two different ways:

  • The avoidant way — disclose as little as possible or try to enforce the boundary without people noticing. For example, tell no one about leaving at 5 and just decide to make up the time later.
  • The approach way — discuss openly and involve others in the conversation or request their support. For instance, instead of just informing the line manager, you could ask them to cover any work that comes up in the 5–6 pm interval.

Now, you may be wondering which combination of these methods is the most successful. As it turns out, the deciding factor is not the boundary in question, but the relationships you have with those who need to respect it:

  • In close work relationships, those with your manager or coworkers who know you well and trust you, direct, approach-based boundary setting is the most effective. You can simply say you’re doing school pick-up at 5, and coworkers will typically not only respect your request to leave, but may also help to manage your workload.
  • In established relationships, which are high in trust but purely professional (you don’t know each other well personally), it works best to combine the direct method with impression management. If they happen to ask for a 5 pm meeting, it’s enough to say you have a previous personal appointment, without providing more details.
  • In new relationships, where you don’t know the person well professionally or personally, impression management is even more central and avoidant boundary setting appears. For instance, you might not mention anything about leaving at 5 pm at all, or simply propose a different time to meet when you get an invite.
  • In suspicious or tense relationships, where you know the person and there is a background of distrust or suspicion, is where we encounter the biggest surprise: no approach works. Attempts to set boundaries, manage impressions, or even to self-manage just reinforce negative perceptions. If a coworker who dislikes you hears you’re leaving at 5 pm they will probably think “leaves work unfinished”, not “great parent”.

I was personally surprised by this final insight. I’ve experienced it, but I always put some of the blame on myself and thought that next time I just have to communicate better.

Instead, it sounds like either people trust you and they will understand or they don’t and they won’t. What are the key things we can do then, to improve our boundaries?

  • Focus on building good relationships. It solves most of the challenges with setting boundaries and gives you the option to be candid and enlist support from others.
  • If you built good relationships you’ve already done most of the work needed for setting boundaries. Don’t be afraid to take a direct, candid approach.
  • Put your needs first. If a relationship is broken boundaries won’t change it. You might as well prioritize your well-being and support your healthy relationships.
  • Set boundaries early in new relationships. Communicate carefully and share more about yourself gradually, to build trust while also ensuring your limits are respected.

As leaders, healthy personal boundaries are our oxygen mask. Thankfully, building great work relationships is not only a great foundation for setting boundaries, but also for meaningful career growth and finding joy in our work. The synergy is strong with this one.

This post was written by Ioana Hreninciuc

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