Missing Boundaries: When Pleasing Others Threatens Your Career Advancement

Professional women must manage a double-edged sword. We are tempted to be “people pleasers”, giving our time, energy and attention to the matters of others, usually to the detriment of our own career goals and healthful outlooks. In my recent article Traversing The Double-Edged Sword: On Releasing The Need To Please Others, I introduced you to this grand paradox, and laid out four factors responsible for sending us off in this direction. I hope it prepared you to join me throughout the month of November on a quest to re-lease your life by setting boundaries and interacting with others for mutual benefit.

This time around, let’s examine a couple of real case studies involving women who set some professional boundaries as solutions to their problematic workplace situations. Clients names have been changed to protect their identity.

Managing Up: The Boss Who Doesn’t Have Your Back

Some bosses believe that their direct reports should be at their beck and call. While some roles exist strictly to support the boss– like executive assistants and administrators, many professionals have their own specific goals that are tied to compensation and promotion opportunities. Eager and motivated professionals want to go above and beyond in order to please their bosses and support their teams, and at times, the boss’s demands keep you from attending to your goal-oriented work.

My client Cathleen found herself not only doing everything her boss Baron asked, but was penalized by her devotion because Baron’s interests weren’t related to Cathleen’s advancement. Her attention to Baron’s needs actually held her back from getting a promotion.

Cathleen realized she was spending so much time putting out Baron’s fires that she wasn’t focused on her career goals and what she was being measured against for compensation and recognition (a.k.a. that promotion). She was accepting of this until Baron officially informed her that he would not be supporting her promotion request. WHAT!? But she’d bent over backwards, giving credit to the “we”— the team, and now finds herself taken advantage of, and ultimately powerless.

During our coaching, she was resistant to the idea of saying “no” but recognized this was a necessary step toward being the captain of her career. She committed to being ultra-focused not only her on responsibilities, but also on building relationships with allies across the firm, making sure she self-advocated in the process— which meant saying “no” to Baron.

Cathleen became completely clear about her overall annual goals— both self-imposed and firm expectations. She broke these down into ambitious milestones and streamlined where her focus was demanded. Then she strategically mapped out who she needed to build relationships with to get noticed for promotion.

Acknowledging her relational goals, Cathleen was then able to create boundaries regarding how she spent her time. As she was asked to be part of this leadership committee and that initiative, she considered whom she’d be exposed to when she did say “yes”.

Next, Cathleen began “retraining” Baron, and this was no easy task, as he was used to hearing “yes” from her, soon followed by good results. She requested a meeting with Baron to share her determination to reach her goals and focus precisely on her responsibilities for becoming more effective at the firm.

Following this difficult conversation, Cathleen went through an almost robotic assessment each time Baron reflexively asked her to do a task: “Does Baron’s ask fall under my job responsibilities?” If the answer was “Yes”, she would confirm and take care of it. Then she’d consider whether it was something that only she could handle, or if it could be delegated out. However, if the answer was “No”, she’d suggest to Baron a more appropriate candidate for the task: “Anita would be better suited to take care of that. Wouldn’t you agree?”

The first few times Cathleen gave Baron a “No” were terribly difficult for her, as they were for Baron! But over time, Cathleen noticed fewer inappropriate asks coming from Baron.

When I asked Cathleen how she could have given herself a “take two” early on, as a way of offering other women advice for avoiding her situation, she said she wouldn’t have made herself so indispensable for Baron’s needs from the start.

Managing Down: The Unmotivated Employee

Granted, not everyone is a Cathleen. A contrasting case study involves my client Mandeep, whose direct report, Ashley, was not ambitious or proactive. Ashley was, in fact, the opposite. However, Mandeep was careful to be nice to Ashley, out of fear she would spread a rumor around the firm that Mandeep was pushy or overreaching.

As we dug into the dynamics of their relationship, it became evident that Mandeep wasn’t holding Ashley accountable for her work and responsibilities. Mandeep had a meeting with Ashley and told her the intention right up front: her desire to help Ashley be more effective at her job. Mandeep explained her approach using the AIR method. First, she laid out the Action that was disruptive (not the person), which was Ashley’s propensity to miss deadlines and submit sloppy work (Mandeep provided specific examples). The Impact, Mandeep explained, was that her own workload was increased, as she spent too much time correcting Ashley’s mistakes. The Request was that Ashley report into her twice a week with progress updates on projects. This way, they could troubleshoot together if Ashley was getting stuck.

This structure relieved Mandeep’s woes because she was making Ashley accountable and cleared the way to give Ashley real-time feedback to keep her on-track and supported in the future.

In my follow-up article, we’ll look at how to balance your interactions as a service provider and a valuable network ally without being taken advantage of.

If you enjoy what you’re reading and are considering living life more fully, schedule a complimentary consultative session with DRIVEN HERE.