In their article Madame C.E.O., Get me a coffee!, the third in their “Women at Work series, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant highlight the ways women blur their boundaries at work by taking on housekeeping tasks that distract them from their jobs, dilute their power, and drain their energy. A main culprit, Sandberg and Grant assert, is the caretaking and nurturing nature typically associated with women. They challenge professional women to set boundaries to take care of themselves first.
We concur that women need to put themselves first. We posit that as women grow into leaders, they also need to put their job responsibilities and the company’s strategic mission above habitual roles that no longer are relevant to their growth in an organization. Linda Torakis, president of McKechnie Vehicle Components, and a Tiara International LLC leadership client, stated in a recent interview: “It was a pivotal moment when I realized that in order to create the company of my dreams I had to be respected instead of liked. I began having the tough conversations with our key leaders instead of handing those off to someone else.”
Letting go of past patterns and stepping into new leadership roles also requires collaboration and teamwork. Sometimes this means setting boundaries that can be difficult and uncomfortable. Rather than passively keeping quiet or aggressively demanding a solution (a double bind women regularly face) here are some proactive steps to draw effective boundaries in gracious ways.
1. Say: “No!”
There are instances where it is appropriate to communicate a strong, clear, unapologetic, “No!” For example, a female CEO was in the middle of making a strong point at a leadership team meeting when a consultant new to the organization (who happened to be male) put his hand up to her and said, “Let me stop you right there.” She looked him square in the eye and said, “No!” She continued to make her point, and gave him the floor when it was appropriately his turn.
We need to be prepared to say “No!” that strongly in those situations. Dr. Kate Webster, in her Breaking Thru Barriers seminars, has participants practice saying “No!” to a series of easy-to-say-yes-to questions. While participants have lots of fun with the exercise, they also have transformative insights as to how difficult it can be to say “No!” even to meaningless sentences.
Dr. Kate affirms that a strong and assertive “No!” breaks through the pre-fabricated societal mold and can make others (and us) uncomfortable. Many women prefer to keep the peace and not rock the boat.
She reminds women:
- That “No” is a complete sentence.
- To avoid following “no” with rationalization.
- To avoid following “no” with apology.
We challenge you to rock the boat. In those situations where you feel a very strong “no” is needed, let it fly.
2. Say: “No, thank you.”
There are times when a forceful “No!” isn’t appropriate. It might be an emotional overreaction that leaves others stupefied or confused. However, we still think that women, in particular, either say “yes” too often or over-rationalize and explain their “no.” In many situations, a polite “No, thank you” works. For example, if you are asked to serve on a board committee, or bring the birthday cupcakes, or scribe at a meeting, you can say: “No, thank you” in each of these situations. What you don’t need to do is to add: “I’m taking a night class,” “I’m a terrible baker,” or “I did it last time.”
We challenge you to be brief. If you want to explain your “No”, you can succinctly state why you have to refuse, but you don’t have to justify why. Practice this in low-risk scenarios with close colleagues, family, and volunteer organizations. Stay in the uncomfortable period that follows without saying anything. Let others figure out who to ask next or how to get the task accomplished. Notice how politely saying “no” with no justification works without offending anyone.
3. Say: “No, and …”
As a leader, there are times when you need to say both “no” and to offer feedback, an explanation or an alternative solution. If your team asks you to participate in a celebration on a Thursday evening, yet it’s the night you promised your son that you would attend his science fair, it actually builds understanding and relationships to expand upon your “no.” For example, you can say, “No, it’s the night I promised to be with my son, and I do want to spend time with you at the next get-together. When is the next night out for the team scheduled?”
If someone asks you to be his or her mentor, and you feel like you are not the right fit or are too pressed for time and can’t give the attention that person needs, it is appropriate to say, “No, it’s not the right time for me to take on that responsibility. Here are other people you might not have considered who would be great …”
We challenge you to draw a boundary while being helpful. To do this, it’s necessary to break the habit of saying “yes” all the time, answering too quickly, double-booking yourself and overcommitting. This practice will build your reputation as a thoughtful and helpful, credible resource.
4. Say: “Yes, and …”
Elizabeth Ruske, Managing Partner with Tiara International LLC, works with leadership teams and clients on integrating “yes, and” into their thoughts, language, and actions. She has taken this practice from the world of improv theater, and has shown leaders and teams how it can be a supportive culture while redirecting as needed. For example, one of her clients, who was new to being in a leadership role, attended a 200-person leadership conference. When the time came to break up into small groups and assign tasks, the new leader was immediately asked to be the scribe, which was a role she used to fill frequently. Using her new “yes, and” skill, the leader said, “Yes, I have often been the scribe, and for this conversation I’d rather focus on brainstorming than capturing ideas. Who else would like that role?”
We challenge you to build positively on ideas and requests, without taking on additional commitments. Saying “yes, and” is a way to support someone’s idea or request while still drawing a boundary for yourself. It moves the conversation forward, demonstrates listening, shows teamwork and is solution-oriented.
5. Say: “Yes.”
There are also times when it feels good to just say, “yes.” And you can do so for any request, from bringing brownies, to working late, to proofreading a document, to serving on a board. The test for whether or not it’s time to say “yes” is how it feels to you. If it feels 100% good and clear to say “yes,” then say it. It’s refreshing.
Once you say “yes,” make sure that your calendar and your other agreements support this new commitment. Remember you can renegotiate your “yes” or change your mind down the road.
We challenge you to say “yes” fearlessly and unequivocally when you know it feels good and serves your priorities, even if it’s in a unique way.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our companies to stop over-helping, over-serving, over-committing and taking on too many administrative tasks. This stops us from using our talents and gifts on the larger issues that need our attention. Yet we know that drawing those boundaries can be tricky. With each situation you face, take a moment, reconnect to your priorities, and use one of the boundary-setting techniques covered here to support your success.