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Writing the Rules…Together

In this month’s I AM EDITOR, Editor-in-Chief Colin Trumbull suggests finding space for work boundaries in the “wiggle room.”

Published onApr 07, 2023
Writing the Rules…Together

Colin Trumbull,

Co-Editor-in-Chief, EON

Senior Manager, Employee Experience

J&J Editorial

Something that has taken me a long time to learn – probably a longer time than it should have really, is that your job is relational. What I mean by that is, it is a give and take. And yet this reality of work can come as a revelation, it certainly did for me. I am not sure exactly what gave me this expectation, but I envisioned work being entirely prescriptive. This is arguably true to an extent – you’ve agreed to complete a prescribed set of tasks and in return you receive your paycheck. On paper this relationship seems a little rigid, unmoving, and indeed it is easy to conclude that this agreement is as static as it appears. For better or worse, this is not going to be an article that discusses how to break yourself out of the necessary and formal arrangement that accompanies a job, but it will discuss some of the unexpected wiggle room I found for myself that exists in some liminal space between the job description and your ability to fulfill that description. That wiggle room is found in developing and maintaining realistic and constructive boundaries for yourself – and working to set the expectation that those boundaries be upheld. I’d like to share some of the strategies I leaned on while implementing some of my own boundaries, and the strategies I’ve found effective for employees as a manger as well.

Developing and maintaining your professional boundaries is an ongoing process, one which evolves over time and takes new forms as your life and profession evolves. It is also not a solitary process. To truly develop boundaries that are constructive and support your ability to succeed, you will need to work in conjunction with the support system maintained by your employer. This likely consists of some combination of direct line managers, HR representatives, and executive leadership. To really establish actionable and sustainable boundaries, you should expect to collaborate with this support system in some way.

In fact, there is a concept I love when discussing professional boundaries which you may have heard me mention before, and that is the concept of boundaries and guardrails. Boundaries are personal limits that you uphold yourself, and guardrails are the procedural and legal support networks that your employer maintains to facilitate personal boundaries. Even the best personal boundaries need to be supported by the organization you work for if they are to be truly upheld which is a key component of the collaborative and relational nature of this process. Because our personal professional boundaries exist within the parameters of the guardrails established by our employer, it is useful to understand a little more about what those guardrails look like.

This term guardrail is a general term to describe all of the benefits, policies, procedures, and laws that an employer upholds as a part of their agreement to hire you; they are structural and procedural limits that support and facilitate your personal boundaries. Some of these are legally mandated protections, while others are internal policies and expectations that the company implements and upholds. If you are not familiar with the relevant policies for your company, you should consult with your HR representative or manager, they should be able to point you to the correct resources and guidelines that are relevant for your employment and can assist you in interpreting those guidelines as well. Once you have a general understanding of the parameters that you’re operating within, you can then begin to build your boundaries and feel more confident that you can uphold them.

When building good boundaries, it is important to reflect on a few different questions. Is this something I can personally uphold? Is it realistic? Does it fit with the core responsibilities of my job? Is it compatible with established company policy? Boundaries should always be conceptualized from a personal basis, boundaries are a personal limit you set for yourself and that you are responsible for upholding, but they should be developed thoughtfully. Thinking about these questions before working to implement a boundary will give you a great chance at ensuring that your boundary is sustainable. Again, this highlights the collaborative nature of boundary setting, and if you are unsure of the underlying relevant policies which may impact your ability to implement a boundary you should ask your manager or HR representative.  In my own journey of developing my boundaries I realized that it is very easy to think your boundary is sustainable, without realizing that it may violate an important policy in the company, and I wish I’d done more research before embarking on this process to understand the parameters I was working with.

Taking the time to lay this initial foundation of understanding does increase the work you have to do to implement a new personal boundary, but it also helps you implement the boundary effectively. When implementing a new boundary, I realized I was identifying a generally applicable checklist of things to be mindful of:

  1. Communicate your plans and intentions with your manager and keep them updated as this process progresses.

  2. If necessary, reconsider and revise your boundary so that it better conforms to the expectations of your job.

  3. When you are ready, begin implementing and upholding this boundary. Remember, YOU are responsible for upholding your own personal limits.

  4. Practice saying no, and knowing when to say no. Again, boundaries should not impact your ability to uphold the responsibilities and duties of the job you agreed to, but you should feel empowered to enforce reasonable professional boundaries, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.

  5. Allow your boundaries to evolve as your job evolves. What is needed and what is appropriate in one role may not be the same in another.  

This process is admittedly somewhat anecdotal and is founded largely on situations I have helped manage as a manager and based on the lessons I’ve learned pursuing this process personally throughout my career. Because of this, your journey may differ slightly than how it is expressed in this article, and I do strongly encourage you to collaborate on this process with your manager to make sure they can guide through the nuances and specifics of your own company’s process and expectations.

Really though, I wish I’d realized sooner in my career that you can actually help write the rules you play by as an employee. I really did believe the entire process was completely prescriptive. You’re told what to do and how to do it. There is some truth to this, but you are also in a position to help shape your environment as well. This is limited and you should expect compromise, but I really encourage us all to remember that we can directly influence our ability to succeed within our position. We can advocate for our needs, and we can professionally implement boundaries. This is not a bad thing, in fact, remembering that you can and should protect your own personal boundaries is really a crucial part in setting yourself up to succeed and to put yourself in a position to do the best work that you can.

I AM EDITOR, to me, is a column which is largely an effort to remind us that we are people first and professionals second. We can and should work to advocate for ourselves. Ultimately, good managers want to put you in a position to succeed and will be able to help you navigate the professional guardrails in place that you can lean on. That won’t cover all of it though. No one is going to prescribe the set of boundaries for you – or if they do, there is no guarantee that those are boundaries which actually work for you. For better or worse, this is your personal responsibility. This being a personal responsibility is perhaps a double-edged sword, it means that you alone are responsible for implementing and upholding professional boundaries. But it also means that you should feel empowered to do so and to utilize the support network around you to shape effective boundaries.

If you take nothing else from this article, I hope that you take the kind reminder that you are important, you matter, and you deserve to work in a job that you help shape by constantly advocating for yourself, collaborating with your manager, and maintaining the necessary boundaries that allow you to truly succeed in your position. If you do this properly by reflecting on the relevant guardrails in place, and collaborating with your company management, you can significantly alter your environment, and even the satisfaction you feel from you job. I hope that you are convinced to start implementing some boundaries of your own or reexamining the boundaries you’ve already put in place. Maybe it’s about time to give them a refresher! 


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