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How to set clear boundaries with your boss

July 7, 2015, 1:19 PM UTC
Photo: Alan Howard

At one of my events, I had a corporate vice president at Microsoft come to speak to us about leadership. His opening few lines gripped the room: “I have never missed my wife’s birthday or the birthdays of any of my three children. I have never missed the first day or the last day of any school term. I have never missed my wedding anniversary. I have never missed the opening night of a school play.” This was just a small part of the list he reeled off. The room was full of senior leaders, all of whom had missed many of the type of special events listed by the CVP. They all wondered how it was possible for this man, running a billion-​dollar business, in a global role, to be present for all those moments.

So we asked him. He explained the understanding that he and his family had come to: that while they accepted that demands on him would rise with his increasing seniority, certain moments were sacred and irreplaceable. He accepted he would travel a lot and he accepted he would work hard, but he would not accept missing these moments. They were one of his ways of harmonizing his work and his family life. In always being present for those moments, he demonstrated to his children, his wife and himself where his priorities lay. He also explained that this value of his was part of his “Rules of Engagement” with any manager. Before he agreed to take on any role, he would negotiate certain agreements with that manager. He would not take a job if a prospective new manager was unwilling to agree to his Rules of Engagement.

Be specific

What really hit me as I listened to the CVP was how wonderfully specific he was about what he wanted. His role required him to make tough decisions each day, not only about his business but also about the way he worked. He had been able to identify very specific moments that allowed him to feel connected to those he cared most about; they could accept his absences, confident in the knowledge that he would be there when it mattered most.

We can’t do or have everything. When setting boundaries, we have to accept that some things will have to give as we negotiate with our manager or partner. What’s important is that we are clear about those things that really matter to us, and build boundaries around them. Use your answers to the following questions as the basis for negotiating your boundaries:

  • What do you (really) want when it comes to your work or your life? (Be specific.)
  • What are you willing to let go of in favor of those things that are truly important to you?


The preemptive strike

The other aspect of boundary setting is what I call “the preemptive strike.” Let’s imagine our CVP gets a call from his manager telling him that a real issue has arisen and he needs to attend a meeting with the CEO of Microsoft on his daughter’s birthday. Most of us might grumble during this call, but it would be followed shortly after by an apologetic conversation with our daughter.

Consider the case of the CVP. When situations like this occur, all he needs to do is remind the manager of their prior agreement. Both people are clear about the values of the CVP; both people are clear of the Rules of Engagement. The discussion rapidly shifts to a workaround solution to this issue; the refusal to attend this critical meeting poses a challenge, but is not a problem.

Prior agreements demonstrate how important things are to you, where your values stand. We respect individuals and leaders who have clear and strong values. The preemptive strike sets out your ground rules and allows you to manage your boundaries, but defuses difficult conversations in advance.

What are your Rules of Engagement? How clear is your manager about your Rules of Engagement?

Excerpt from BUSY: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much by Tony Crabbe. Copyright © 2015 by Tony Crabbe. Used with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.