Be Great, But Set Boundaries

“Remember that the reward for being amazing at your job is more work. Be great but set boundaries. Beware if you ignore this rule.”

-Mark Strong

Are you an office superhero?

Many of my executive coaching clients have risen rapidly through the ranks based on their incredible work ethic. This is a great skill in any economy, but it can really make you stand out in a downturn. Standout performers increase their feeling of job security by making themselves indispensible.

I highly advocate standout performance, and doing what needs to be done at work to shine. But like most principles, this one only works if applied in moderation. I posted my quote above on the Mark Strong Coaching Facebook page as a reminder of one side effect that almost always follows doing a great job: being given more work.

In fact, one of the main issues that led me to seek my executive coach many years ago was a result of this conundrum. I worked hard and was rewarded with a quick ascent up the management ladder. Like many of my clients, I then experienced the sense of overwhelm that comes from taking on too many new responsibilities at once. I needed help navigating issues—from leading better teams to balancing my work and personal life—as a result of these increasing challenges.

The answer that my own executive coach shared with me back then holds true today. It is to know your limits, and set your boundaries accordingly. If you ignore this rule, you may find yourself “underwater” drowning in more tasks than you can reasonably do. Here are some tips on how to stay afloat while still delivering a performance to remember:

Be clear about what’s on your plate.

Your manager’s job is to get as much done through the team as possible using given resources, which include you. If your manager thinks you can take on more work because that’s the message you’re delivering, you’ll end up with more work.

The key is to be proactive in letting your manager know what you’re already working on, so that it’s clear whether you can take on another project or not. If you misrepresent your workload and suggest that you can handle more than you really can, then you haven’t done a good job at setting boundaries for your manager.

Create a visual that shows your time allocation.

Sometimes despite your best efforts to communicate clearly about your full plate, your manager may want to give you more. To help avoid this, it can be helpful to create a visual representation of your projects and the time it will take you to complete each of them. Whether it’s a calendaring system, a pie chart, or a simple list of tasks and due dates, post this visual in a prominent place near your workstation, and update it regularly. Be prepared to use it as a talking point in discussions with your boss before agreeing to take on new tasks.

Suggest delegation or sharing the load.

If you’ve tried the above strategies but your boss persists in pushing new projects on you, suggest a share. Request your manager’s buy-in on finding a partner who can help you with the project, or who can even take the lead on it.

Another strategy is to ask if delegation is possible once you’ve gotten the project started. Offer to stay available for questions and troubleshooting as needed. Though it may be initially hard to set boundaries, your manager will respect you more in the end, and you’ll preserve your energy to keep standing out.