Setting Hard Boundaries Can Hold Your Career Back: Here’s What To Do Instead

by | Nov 6, 2020 | Forbes Article

First published on

For years, women have been told to set boundaries, say no to things to protect their time and make sure that they don’t get stuck in the grind. But here’s the unfortunate truth. Setting a hard line in the sand, like “I shut down my computer at 5 p.m. every single day” or “I don’t do things that are outside of the scope of my job description” can actually hold you back from getting ahead. Here’s why: Sometimes, strategic opportunities for exposure, growth and learning are outside of your job description, or they happen after 5 p.m. If your boundaries are too strict, you risk being left out of these crucial opportunities for growth and exposure that move your career forward.

While having boundaries is really important, you also need to step up to the plate and deliver value — a topic I’ve covered before — so that people notice you and offer opportunities for you to advance. How do you deliver value without getting burnt out? How do you do one without sacrificing the other?

Most of the time, these hard boundaries are a sort of overcorrection. When you have the tendency to say yes to everything and you end up getting stuck in the grind, you might think these strict boundaries could save you from the never-ending to-do list, the mountain of work, the endless emails and meetings. You’re so busy juggling everything that the idea of taking on something strategic and important seems impossible.

Both of these are dangerous positions to be in, especially if you want to get ahead in your career. Always saying yes leaves you with little time or energy to focus on your big goals, the really important stuff that is going to make a difference for your company and your career. While always saying no is likely to reduce the opportunities you’re presented within the first place.

One misconception about getting ahead at work is that you need to say yes to every opportunity — it shows commitment to the company, it shows you’re willing to take one for the team. But the flip slide is that this mentality keeps you overwhelmed and away from high-profile opportunities to get ahead. Have you ever heard the saying, “The only thing that hard work gets you is more hard work”? You need to be strategic about what you say yes to and that means learning how to say no.

So what do you do? First, you need to set clear goals. Take a minute and ask yourself what you really want in your career. Imagine five to 10 years down the road. What are you doing? How are you contributing? What impact are you making on the people around you?

Imagine if you had unlimited time and could do something to work toward these goals every single day. What would these things be? This is your bigger yes. These are the things that are going to get you ahead. These are the things that are going to get you noticed. An added bonus of spending your time on these is that you’ll also feel fulfilled and internally motivated to keep going. These are the things that you need to keep on your plate.

When you can articulate your bigger yes, it gives you a framework to be able to say no strategically. When you say yes to the things that you don’t actually want to do, you are really saying no to yourself. You are saying no to your hopes, to your dreams, to your goals and the things that need to happen for you to move forward. When you say yes to things you don’t want to do, you are using your time to work on other people’s goals, which actually takes away from your own goals. The next time you have the opportunity to say yes or no to something, think about your bigger yes. Is this going to move you toward or away from it?

Another tool that can help you to say no strategically is the idea of slowing down before saying yes. Have you ever said yes to something that seemed simple and straightforward and then turned into something more complicated that took a lot of time? Have you ever said no to something that ended up being an amazing opportunity and you missed out? Instead of making a decision right away, slow down the decision-making process for yourself by getting curious and asking questions. Find out more information and see how this fits in with your bigger yes. Sometimes taking one for the team can actually contribute to your bigger yes and open the door to bigger opportunities. It’s important to be aware of the fine line between “taking one for the team” and being the one always tasked with the grunt work. Knowing your bigger yes will help you to stay on the right side of this line.

Having boundaries is good and having a process for this that links to your long-term goals make it easier to say no without having the fear of missing out on something big.

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