BD8: Boundary Setting @ Work

Welcome to Breakdown 8. Today we tackle how to set boundaries at work.

BD is where I teach a coach's secret secret sauce: how to dissect a person's problem so you can give them the solution. Think of it a little bit like making an ice cream cake - I don't just show you the final cake but the recipe and mechanism that got me there. If you can learn this skill then you can start coaching yourself through your challenges and put me firmly out of business.

If you'd like to have a problem of yours BD'd please feel free to just hit reply and let me know (I've currently got 1 in the chamber so send one across if you have one.)

It's always a delight to do one of these and help one of you.

BD posts can get quite (very) long. Let's do this.

Estimated full reading time: 10 minutes.


For those of you with bad eye site, get some damn glasses. Here it is the old fashioned way:

Hey MJ!

Love your BDs and hope you've been doing well.

Since you always ask I thought I'd reply with a challenge I'm facing - totally fine if you can't or don't want to answer.

I recently started a new job and am noticing a culture of overwork. There's a meeting first thing on Mondays where employees who got work done over the weekend are appreciated in front of everyone, and there's constant preach to work smarter not harder, yet everyone stays back every single day to get work done. Every other employee I speak to is very aware of this but no-one seems to be speaking up. I can't quite afford to loose this job or change jobs again at the moment with a pending mortgage application, so I feel the strong need to address this issue and both set my own boundaries as well as effect overall change in the company. I have prepared notes and had meetings with my manager about this, but can never man up the courage to address it as asserting as I'd actually like to - fear of losing the job and self-doubt get in the way..

Good morning BD8,

We just have a straight solution today because of the nature of our BD's problem.

Our BD today revolves around one of my all time favourite sayings: Is the juice going to be worth the squeeze? (and secondly, I'd add: why do you want to make the juice anyway?)

It's another way of asking you to step back and see if this battle is going to be worth the victory and if you really want this battle in the way you think you do. I'd love to start this week's BD with a hedge that I have worked literally 0 minutes in a corporate setting, have no tolerance for politics in my life and see things in a very black and white way when it comes to people and whether they are supportive or toxic.

I'm always of the opinion that if you don't like something you should just change it immediately and it really is possible to live a life that way if you're creative and committed enough.

Let's break down my thoughts about this step by step.

Firstly, I'd love to know what you mean by 'overwork.' Are we talking 9-6? 8-7? As someone who works 70 hours a week (and loves doing so and will continue to do so), I wonder where the line really is when we talk about what you call 'overwork.'

JUST TO BE CLEAR: I'm not suggesting you work the same amount I do. That wouldn't make sense unless you had the same vision that I do. But it is important to really see if you value this so much where your line actually is.

What I think overwork means and what you think overwork means is probably very different. You could have a heart attack at the stress of working a 50 hour week, someone else could have a heart attack and the stress of NOT working 50 hours a week as they think it's too little. It's a matter of perspective and we need to understand your perspective before we can move forward.

My first piece of advice for you would be a little bit of perspective. This problem, like all problems, is an opportunity to learn and grow. If we treat our lives like this then we can be sure that we won't keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. If we just progressively become less stupid over the course of our lives then eventually good things will start happening.

So our real question is not how can I be more assertive, it's what am I being called to learn here?

You've already highlighted beautifully the need to be able to speak your truth and own your power and I LOVE THAT. Being able to speak assertively and go in for battle in anything you care deeply about is so important. That's one potential lesson that I'll cover below. But in my own story of my own read into this situation as I perused your email I think there is potentially another one that is a little deeper for you to learn.

I don't know of many jobs where people only work 40 hours a week and I don't know of ANYONE working in a job they love and are passionate about who only works 9-5. I think this is a really big deal for you to think about as we process the rest of this BD.

What do you want from a career?

Do you want to be successful massively or just be the middle of the pack?

Do you just want some certainty so that you can have as much of a life OUTSIDE of work as possible and have a mortgage application?

I'm only speaking to BD here and not at all thinking that ANYONE else reading this should be considering these questions as well.

If it's the middle of the pack, then that's fucking amazing and we should manipulate your life so that's what you're aiming for. I think you should really strive to find a job where you get paid what you desire with minimal work invested and leave this job once you mortgage application is done. I really mean that. Don't waste your life doing things you don't want to do.

I'm being deadly serious here, whatever you want from your career is UP TO YOU! It's YOUR career. So we need to understand our north star before we plan.

That said, If you want to live a life that's anywhere above the middle of the bell curve, then you're going to HAVE to work REALLY hard at it. Like, probably overworking hard at it.

I wonder if the amount of hours that you're working is the real challenge or if it's just that the work that you're doing doesn't fill you up so much that you love doing it? I wonder if this is actually about overwork at all.

Is it the hours that you're working or is it that you feel like you're missing out on things?

Is it that you can't stand what you perceive as a difference in what people are saying and what they are expecting of you?

Is it that you think that management is deliberately building a malicious and deceitful standard of overwork for nefarious purposes?

All of these questions you should be considering deeply because, at the moment, you're CHOOSING to work in this job. We have to be careful not to make ourselves not in control and in full responsibility for our decisions.

You're valuing your mortgage application more than your job satisfaction at the moment. That's a decision you're making. We need to start working through this problem with THIS as our starting point because it's the truth. You're choosing to be in this environment.

I would suggest to you to re-consider what's really happening here to see if this is just some value conflicts and you feeling forced rather than realising your choosing. That's a big shift in the language that will help you think through this.

The next piece is that from the outside looking in, my story of what's happening here is that it's a really big deal that they are appreciating people that work on the weekends and that might tell us a lot about the management of the company.

I've never heard of a company that does that and I think that's super important.

This ties in with the fact that you've spoken to so many co-workers about it, there is probably a reason no one else has spoken out - either they are terrified of management and fear that if they speak out they will lose the job (which it sounds like you're assuming) OR that it's not as big of a deal for them as it is for you and this is you projecting onto everyone else (which I'm not sure you've considered.)

That second line is the thing that I think could be a deeper lesson here.

Why do you feel the need to want to enact change in the corporate culture? Is this about YOU making the change about something that YOU feel needs to change because YOU feel like the is a discrepancy between action and words of the company? Does everyone else agree that there is too much overwork and have the same definition of overwork as you? Is this really about everyone else or about you feeling a strong need to change things?

Is this genuinely that everyone else feels the same way that you do but are scared because of malicious intent of management or are you projecting what you feel is right onto everyone else of the company?

Anytime you feel a 'strong need' to be changing something I'd be careful to make sure this isn't just you assuming things or that you're going to force everyone else to conform to your values. It's SO easy to presuppose that your values are more 'correct' that someone else even when your intent is the purest thing on earth. We all do this at some levels.

I've met people who seriously believe in racism. Does that make their values inferior to mine or are they just different? Stop and think about that one. Should I treat them as inferior or stupid or instead try and understand their values and way of looking at the world and in doing so actually have the ability to have an open conversation that may help them come to different understanding if they want too? What's my intention in this conversation?

I don't know either way about management and their values, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little of you projecting going on and if there it's a monumental lesson to learn that will change how you interact with humans for the rest of your life. I've never seen anyone change their values because they were forced. It's only EVER because they were loved and felt safe enough to do so without a fear of judgement.

Assuming that isn't the case (and we'd only do that if we actively tried to prove the other assumption right with everything we had but kept failing) then it's a key point to understand that in any negotiation the person who is less invested in making sure they get the best outcome will often win. The person who doesn't need the deal in the negotiation often has leverage. So I'd be careful to make sure you don't go down this path for the whole company until you're invaluable.

I'll repeat: don't do ANYTHING to rock the boat until you're INVALUABLE because at the moment you need the job so they have leverage over you. Don't start a battle by deliberately putting yourself at a disadvantage. You'll definitely have a bad time.

As for yourself and being more assertive with your boundaries.

First thing, AS ALWAYS, is to figure out what your own boundaries are and whether they are reasonable. Without clarity, you can't really get where you need to go. Once you know them, then the critical skills are communicating assertively and communicate first to understand THEN be understood.

The key to being more assertive is to find leverage on yourself. The key to doing anything you're scared of is to create a reason that FORCES you to do it. If you're scared of jumping off a cliff but you know unless you do you'll lose something dear to you, then you'll jump off the damn cliff. All of life works the same.

It's called creating a FORCING FUNCTION. The day you have no option but to be assertive, you'll be assertive.

All problems are really just a manifestation of a lack of commitment to solving them because you're scared you can't or that you won't get the right outcome.

I wrote a full BD a few weeks ago around all of the actual tactics to be more assertive so I won't repeat them in detail here.

But getting yourself to do things that scare you is ALWAYS about finding a WHY that is strong enough. You either continue slaving away at work and feeling drained, like your values are being tarnished, like your soul is being tortured by the injustice of what you're going through, how it will damage your health, relationships and connection with yourself or you can just have a 30-minute conversation with someone.

When you make it that black and white for yourself it starts getting a lot easier to pull the trigger.

You'll probably feel the courage to have that conversation just by reading that last sentence, so COMMIT yourself to having that conversation by sending an email to your manager and booking in now.

Decide what you're comfortable doing and know what your boundaries are. Then go in and ALWAYS show them that THEY ARE GETTING MORE OF WHAT THEY VALUE by you choosing this course of action. We are almost always so selfish in how we communicate without realising if we can be open and respectful and giving then we give the other person permission to do the same.

Seek first to UNDERSTAND and THEN be UNDERSTOOD. It's a huge mindset shift approaching life like that, and this is what you need to do here. Understand your manager and keep seeking to do so until you KNOW they feel LISTENED TOO and THEN start speaking about your needs.

Remember that you don't get to decide what they value, they do. A lot of people decide what others should value without realising it, which leads incessantly to cantankerous conflict.

If you can show management that this is an obvious win for them in whatever they view as the game they are playing then amazing things will happen and you'll get through to them.

Life is always about the exchange of value, and if you're ever looking to take value then you need to make sure that you have enough value banked with any person that your withdrawal isn't more than you have deposited. Trying to overdraw your value account starts leading to bad times.

That's when you start getting fired or broken up with.

So remember: is the juice going to be worth the squeeze or is your lesson found elsewhere in this moment?

There was a lot in this one and I'd love to hear how it all goes,


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