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How to Set Boundaries at Work

by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, from Boundaries 2017

Christians often have a warped way of looking at work. Unless someone is working “in the ministry,” they see his work as secular. However, this view of work distorts the biblical picture. All of us — not only full-time ministers — have gifts and talents that we contribute to humanity. We all have a vocation, a “calling” into service. Wherever we work, whatever we do, we are to do “unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).

Jesus used parables about work to teach us how to grow spiritually. These parables deal with money, with completing tasks, with faithful stewardship of a job, and with honest emotional dealings in work. They all teach character development in the context of relating to God and others. They teach a work ethic based on love under God.

Work is a spiritual activity. In our work, we are made in the image of God, who is Himself a worker, a manager, a creator, a developer, a steward, and a healer. To be a Christian is to be a co-laborer with God in the community of humanity. By giving to others we find true fulfillment. The New Testament teaches that jobs offer more than temporal fulfillment and rewards on earth. Work is the place to develop our character in preparation for the work that we will do forever.

Problems in the Workplace

A lack of boundaries creates problems in the workplace. In consulting for corporations, I have seen lack of boundaries as the major problem in many management squabbles. If people took responsibility for their own work and set clear limits, most of the problems for which I get consulted would not exist.

Problem: Working Too Much Overtime

When I first went into practice, I hired a woman for twenty hours a week to run my office. On her second day in the office, I gave her a pile of things to do. About ten minutes later, she knocked at my door, stack of papers in hand.

“What can I do for you, Laurie?” I asked.

“You have a problem,” she told me.

“I do? What is it?” I asked, not having the vaguest idea what she was talking about.

“You hired me for twenty hours a week, and you have just given me about forty hours of work. Which twenty would you like done?”

She was right. I did have a problem. I had not managed my workload very well. I was either going to have to spend more on help, cut back on projects, or hire someone else. But she was right: it was my problem, not hers. I had to take responsibility for it and fix it. Laurie was telling me what that ever-present sign says: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Many bosses aren’t so lucky. Their employees take responsibility for their lack of planning and never set limits on them. They are never forced to look at their lack of boundaries until it’s too late, until they have lost a good employee to exhaustion or burnout. Such bosses need clear limits, but many employees are afraid to set them, as Laurie did, because they need the job or they fear disapproval.

If you are in a situation in which you’re doing lots of extra work because you “need the job” and because you are afraid of being let go, you have a problem.

If you are working more overtime than you want to, you are in bondage to your job. You are a slave, not an employee under contract. Clear and responsible contracts tell all parties involved what is expected of them, and they can be enforced.

Jobs should have clear descriptions of duties and qualifications.

As hard as it sounds, you need to take responsibility for yourself and take steps to change your situation. Here are some suggested steps you may wish to take:

1. Set boundaries on your work. Decide how much overtime you are willing to do. Some overtime during seasonal crunches may be expected of you.

2. Review your job description, if one exists.

3. Make a list of the tasks you need to complete in the next month. Make a copy of the list and assign your own priority to each item. Indicate on this copy any tasks that are not part of your job description.

4. Make an appointment to see your boss to discuss your job overload. Together you should review the list of tasks you need to complete in the next month. Have your boss prioritize the tasks. If your boss wants all the tasks done, and you cannot complete these tasks in the time you are willing to give, your boss may need to hire temporary help to complete those tasks. You may also wish to review your job description with your boss at this time if you think you are doing things that fall outside your domain.

If your boss still has unreasonable expectations of you, you may wish to take a coworker or two along with you to a second meeting (according to the biblical model in Matthew 18), or you may wish to discuss your problem with the appropriate person in your personnel department. If even then he remains unreasonable about what he thinks you can accomplish, you may need to begin looking for other job opportunities within your company or outside.

You may need to go to night school and get some further training to open up other opportunities. You may need to chase down hundreds of employment ads and send out stacks of resumes. (Consult the book How to Get a Job by James Bramlett for information on job searches.) You may wish to start your own business. You may wish to start an emergency fund to survive between quitting your present job and starting a new one.

Whatever you do, remember that your job overload is your responsibility and your problem. If your job is driving you crazy, you need to do something about it. Own the problem. Stop being a victim of an abusive situation and start setting some limits.

Learn to know your limits and enforce them, as Laurie did. Say to your team or your boss, “If I am going to do A today, I will not be able to do B until Wednesday. Is that okay or do we need to rethink which one I need to be working on?”

Effective workers do two things: they strive to do excellent work, and they spend their time on the most important things. Many people do excellent work but allow themselves to get sidetracked by unimportant things; they may do unimportant things very well! They feel like they are doing a great job, but their boss is upset because essential goals are not being met. Then they feel unappreciated and resentful because they have put out so much effort. They were working hard, but they weren’t placing boundaries on what they allowed to take up their time, and the really important things did not get their attention.

Say no to the unimportant, and say no to the inclination to do less than your best.

If you are doing your best work on the most important things, you will reach your goals.

In addition to saying no to the unimportant, you need to make a plan to accomplish the important things, and erect some fences around your tasks. Realize your limits, and make sure you do not allow work to control your life. Having limits will force you to prioritize.

If you make a commitment to spend only so many hours a week on work, you will spend those hours more wisely. If you think your time is limitless, you may say yes to everything. Say yes to the best, and sometimes you may need to say no to the good.

One man’s ministry required a lot of travel, so he and his wife put their heads together and decided that he would spend no more than one hundred nights a year on the road. When he gets an offer he has to check his time budget and see if this is something he wants to spend some of his nights on. This plan forces him to be more selective in his travel, thereby saving time for the rest of his life.

A company president who was allowing work to keep him away from home too much made a commitment to spend only forty hours a week in the office. At first, he really struggled because he wasn’t used to budgeting his time and commitments so closely. Slowly though, when he realized that he only had so much time, he began to spend it more wisely. He even got more accomplished because he was forced to work smarter.

Work will grow to fill the time you have set aside for it. If a meeting does not have an agenda with time limits, discussion could be endless. Allot time for certain things, and then keep your limits. You will work smarter and like your work more.

Take a lesson from Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who, seeing Moses’ lack of boundaries, asked him why he was working so hard (Exodus 18:14-27).

“Because the people need me,” Moses said.

“What you are doing is not good,” Jethro replied. “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18).

Even though Moses was doing good work, Jethro saw that he was going to burn himself out. Moses had allowed good work to go too far. Limits on good things keep them good.

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