Here’s a great question from Concetta 

How to set boundaries with superiors? As a middle manager, I often get pushed to my limits on what I can do (and then some), but constantly feel as if I can’t say no or push the boundary because they are of course holding my job hostage. Other things I’ve actually reduced from my reportees to give boundaries like no email between 7 pm and 7 am, using tech tools to reduce their need to be online, etc.

It’s a very common issue for frontline staff and for middle managers. (Even CEO’s might have a similar question in reference to setting boundaries with their board of directors.) 

Boundaries are like scaffolding

In 2021, we watched a house across the street be built. As I watch the house go up I noticed that once the framing is up, in comes the team to erect scaffolding…

While a roof, walls and even insulation are obvious boundaries that houses hold. Simplistically, they protect the inhabitants from the outside elements.

Scaffolding however, reminds me of the boundaries we set for ourselves. The scaffolding that’s gone up is for the safety of those putting up the next elements of the house. It provides a platform for work to happen; it’s sturdy; it can be kept in place for as long as required; and can be adjusted for the situation.

Boundaries and scaffolding are all about a clear understanding of what is part of a role and what isn’t. This includes agreement and acceptance: contractually the scaffolding is required for construction and safety. Boundaries are required for reasonable work workload management.

[I’m focusing on workload boundaries in this instance. Boundaries can also be applied to space, physical, religion, possessions, sexuality, etc.]

 A boundary might not be liked by those who must comply with them. I’m aware of some builders who feel constrained trying to move and get around scaffolding however they need to adjust. Additionally, the scaffolding certainly didn’t add to the street appeal (yes, it’s temporary). Even so, over time it would no doubt fade into the environment as everyone would get use to it being there. 

Acceptance of boundaries is key and crossing them needs to be addressed. So too, not working with and complying to the scaffolding can have dire consequences.


Strategies for setting upward boundaries

Check out the strategies below, some may be more relevant for your situation and others less so. Next week, I’ll share more on identifying and practice setting boundaries.


1. Empathy – the pressure on you is coming from somewhere

Start from a place of empathy. It may be a bit challenging to have empathy for some bosses but it’s a good place to start. When a boss keeps piling on the work, take a moment to consider where the pressure is really coming from: is that boss having pressure piled onto them? What’s happening at the broader organisational or business or even industry level that gives clues as to where the pressure is being driven from.

If the relationship with your boss is strong and open, they may appreciate some acknowledgement that they too have pressure on them. You could say something along the line of…

“There’s just so much work to do, I guess you are getting a lot of pressure put onto you.”


2. Priorities 

From a place of empathy you can invite a conversation about priorities. When another task gets handed over to you, with a calm and positive tone, ask to discuss and review the current priorities. With an intent that seeks to understand your boss’ priorities and your boss gets to be aware of your priorities you could discuss and agree what can be dropped, parked, delegated and done first.


3. Identify, Set and Communicate boundaries 

It’s hard to have boundaries without some dedicated thinking about what boundaries are right for you, your work and your values. Next week we’ll unpack this more, so before then, if you are unclear of what your boundaries are, spend this week with deliberate attention to identify what might be your boundaries.

Once identified you are better placed to set and communicate exactly what you want. Have you ever listened to someone who hasn’t thought through what they’ve wanted to say first. This is the same for boundaries. The clearer you are the better you’ll be able to communicate them. 


4. Will rather than Won’t

When boundaries are being challenged and work is being piled on, as you discuss the priorities of this new work in alignment with your current work, aim to discuss what you will do.

When the pressure is coming thick and fast, it might be quick to jump to what you won’t or feel you can’t do. Focus on what you can do and communicate that rather than stating what you won’t do. This will help show the boss you’re open and willing. If you were to simply pushback you will run the risk of be seen as negative, unwilling, difficult. And that’s not really you, right?


5. Pushback – You do it too, expect it

When your own reports try to avoid work, responsibility or stepping up when requested, do you push a little more? You’re not aggressive and demanding but rather, nudging a little more, being a bit more encouraging so the report will lean in, step up, own up, do the work.

Expect your boss to also pushback and nudge you: after all, they want you to do the work so they’ll do what they can to get you to do it. Expect the pushback and be ready to negotiate what you can and will do with the right priorities to focus on.


6. Respect

At all times be respectful of both your priorities and their priorities.

At all times be respectful of both your values and their values.

At all time be respectful of the demands you both have going on.


7. Practice at home

When identifying and setting boundaries for the first time, let alone with someone more senior who can influence your career (or job security), it can be daunting. [Thanks Sally, don’t sugar coat it!]

So practice at home on smaller, less critical boundaries. Work with a trusted colleague at work to set boundaries at work with your own reports. Next week I’ll share how I set a boundary with the Chairman of the Board when I first became a CEO.


What strategy or combination of strategies resonate for you?