x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A five-point plan for setting boundaries

The Life: Wrapping a five-point plan on workplace boundaries into one point: it would be to stand firm and educate through questions.

What do I do with a colleague or supervisor who treats every single matter as urgent? All their emails must be answered "now" and they interrupt other people's conversations because "this just can't wait". Workplace doctor, please give me a five-point programme. SC, Dubai


Hi, SC, if you could only see the smile on my face currently, as many years ago, I was in such an environment with precisely the same issue. Allow me to contextualise the "this just can't wait'" situation I faced on a regular basis. I would have 30 people in a room learning about the company for their orientation - their one and only chance for a positive first impression of the company - when suddenly there would be a knock on the door and I'd be told the managing director needs to see me right now in his office. Does this resonate with you? Oh, how I feel your pain.

If I was to wrap a five-point plan into one point, it would be to stand firm and educate through questions.

How I handled this was to politely inform the messenger that I was currently unavailable and unless it was life and death I would make contact the moment my responsibility to the 30 staff was served. I must admit the look on the face of the messenger was priceless at that time - never before had anyone challenged the leadership; yet my intention was not to challenge. On the contrary, I was helping the leadership by training up a better team. The moment the orientation was over, I booked an appointment with the managing director and asked what the urgent situation was.

He demanded to know why I hadn't come running when he called. I responded with questions: How would walking out on 30 people help your business results? What message would we be sending by interrupting the training for an hour? I was pleased to see, ever so gradually, an education process emerge whereby he started to prioritise the training himself and even ensured he was part of it in the future. Great return on investment from two questions, wouldn't you say? And by the way, not one of the urgent matters had ever really been urgent.

As for those who would interrupt a one-on-one meeting with an a so-called urgent matter, I initially allowed it yet quickly learnt no conversation of substance is for just one minute.

This stopped happening once I made my choice - if their conversation was more important than mine, I would simply leave my meeting politely, and the person meeting me had to wait another time for my valued assistance. Respecting others can only happen once you respect yourself.

Back to the five-point plan:

1 Be clear on what's acceptable and what's not for behavioural boundaries;

2 Help others to face their own barriers to your new guidelines - offer assistance when the guidelines may seem all too much;

3 Start an education process with why and how with those who venture beyond your boundaries;

4 Make a stance when boundaries are crossed;

5 Don't demonstrate double standards yourself. Ensure you walk and talk these five points at every opportunity.

Reinforce your five tips at every opportunity in the first few weeks. People will eventually change their ways, especially when they may see themselves as the only one not following the rules.


Doctor's prescription

Draw up your parameters and educate others on their importance.


Debbie Nicol, the managing director of Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at debbie.nicol@businessenmotion.com for the Workplace Doctor's advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague