How to set boundaries and say ‘no’ at work

How to set boundaries and say ‘no’ at work
SEEK content teamupdated on 20 April, 2024

Many of us will have been in a situation at work where we’ve felt uncomfortable or wanted to say ‘no’ – perhaps it’s a task you just can’t take on, or an approach to working that you’re unhappy with.

For such a small word, ‘no’ can be hard to say. While saying no to your boss or colleague may feel like a confrontation, SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read says that ‘no’ is actually a crucial part of setting boundaries.

“Boundaries are important both personally and professionally,” Read says. “It’s not always easy to identify where your boundaries are, but most of us know instantly when out boundaries are crossed. We feel resentful, misunderstood and frustrated.”

Setting boundaries of your own can help you to address problems, have tricky conversations with your colleagues, and even say ‘no’. And with the way many of us work impacted by COVID-19, it can be more important than ever to look after our wellbeing by setting boundaries. Here’s how it can be done.

Working out what your boundaries are

To start with, it’s important to identify and define your boundaries – they’re different for each of us. Read suggests doing this by working backwards from the feelings you’ve had in the past when you felt like a line was crossed. “Think about a time when you’ve felt hard done by or misunderstood at work,” she suggests. “What it was that pushed your buttons? Was your workload too great; your autonomy compromised because of too many Zoom calls or maybe you felt frustrated by low flexibility or rigid working expectations.”

These feelings can help you to identify your boundaries. They could take the form of a limit to what you’re OK with, such as your daily workload. Or, perhaps for you a boundary means not checking your work email after 6pm, or getting advance notice on when a large project is coming to you.

Read says we need to surrender the idea that our boss or colleagues should automatically know what our boundaries are. “Only you can identify your boundaries, and it’s up to you to communicate them,” she says. “Hoping that someone will instinctively understand your core needs is not an effective way to manage boundary setting. You need to get clear on where the line in the sand is for you.”

How to talk about your boundaries with your boss

If you’ve identified issues to do with your boundaries at work, it’s a good idea to figure out the most appropriate person to speak with and have a conversation about it.

“It’s normal to feel apprehensive about initiating these discussions, but being prepared beforehand means you can have a healthy and productive conversation about your boundaries,” Read says. “Remember, ‘boundary’ is not a dirty word!”

Before the conversation, write down your thoughts and get clarity about what you want to discuss.

Read suggests this step-by-step approach:

  • Flag the issue with your manager

Send an email to your boss so they know you want to discuss an issue. You could say, “I’ve been feeling challenged by our new way of working. I’m wondering if we can set up a time to discuss some possible solutions?”

  • Ease your way into the conversation

“It can be hard beginning tricky conversations,” Read says. She suggests starting with an ‘I’ statement, such as:

“I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.”

“I’d like to talk to you about [topic], but first I’d really like to hear your point of view.”

  • Identify what’s non-negotiable and what’s flexible

“In any negotiation, you will have boundaries that are non-negotiable and some that are flexible,” Read says. “Your boss will have these areas too. Your task is to express your needs, offer solutions, listen to their perspective and work out where you are both flexible.”

  • Focus on your common goals

“What are you both trying to achieve?” asks Read. “It’s not about you vs. your boss, but about your shared goals. Focus your discussion on how you can both have your needs met.”

  • Follow up

Once you’ve discussed the issue with your boss, don’t forget to follow up. “You need to drive the process,” Read says. “Follow up in a couple of weeks to acknowledge what has worked well, what hasn’t worked so well and what you’ll continue doing.”

How to say no

Once you’re more confident in your boundaries, you may need to use them in situations where you want to say no. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re being asked to do something that crosses your boundaries, Read says there are ways to politely, but firmly stand your ground.

If you’re asked to take on work at the last minute, you can say: “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I have already allocated my time this week to working on [name of project]. Let’s talk about when I could fit it in.”

If you’re asked to repeatedly work longer hours, you can say: "I have something I'd like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively."

If your boss works excessive hours and expects other to do the same, you can say:"I think we have different expectations around general working hours, I'd like to hear your thinking on this."

Getting clear on your boundaries can be an important step towards feeling more satisfied at work and better understood by your colleagues. By following these steps, you’ll be able to identify your boundaries and have productive conversations that allow you to do and feel your best work.

More from this category: Workplace wellbeing

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