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  • Eileen McDargh

The Power of Boundary Setting


The Power of Boundary Setting

When Robert Frost penned, “good fences make good neighbors”, he was thinking of sheep wandering to a neighbor’s garden. Today, crafting fences (not walls) in our work and life is a solid technique for conserving energy and staying focused.

Let me explain.

In studying the causes of burnout, being a bobble head is a practice sure to ignite exhaustion. Nodding yes to every request is a sure-fire (pardon the pun) way to expend unnecessary energy and take a potential project away from someone who could benefit. Case in point: Jan was an administrator with an escrow company. The case load piled up and she’d work until 10 at night to stay caught up.

“I’m just fried,” she confessed in a coaching session.

“So what will happen if you don’t say enough and put a line in the sand that says you are going home at 5pm?”, I asked.


“I might die,” responded Jan. The potential of getting fired seemed almost a pleasure.

Sounds dramatic but it took that realization for Jan to gather up her courage and inform her manager that there was a statute of limitations for how long she could work in a day.

Jan didn’t get fired. In fact, she got a raise. The manager had NO IDEA how long each one of these escrow cases took nor how many hours Jan was working. Plus, by turning over some the case load to another employee, that person became trained in a different part of the escrow process.

Now, I am not promising anyone a raise but here’s the point: If you are very good at what you do, you’ll be given more and more. Our ego gets hooked into believing that we are Wonder Woman or Superman. There’s almost a diabolic pleasure in being the can-do-give-it-to-me person. And there is a price to be paid.

The ability to say “no” or “not now” is a gift not only to yourself but also to others. For yourself, there are things that you and only you could, should, and can do. Turning over the writing of a critical proposal to a new employee with little experience would be foolhardy. However, turning over parts of it could be an educational opportunity and ultimately develop a new skill for that team member,


Listen up leaders: Few want to disappoint the manager. It might be difficult for employees to draw a line with you. Share your concern about how much someone is working. Create literal time-outs for employees and require them to take time off. You have a toxic work environment if overwork is a badge of honor. And… you will lose your best and brightest.


Boundary setting also extends into our personal life. There’s no written law (other than our own guilt and misplaced affection) that says Mom has to do all the household chores or Dad is the gardener. By sharing duties around the household, we create a community feeling that says, “I am not a guest—I belong here”. Besides, by not setting boundaries and sharing duties, members of the household are prevented from learning the basics of household management and upkeep.


Were Robert Frost alive today, he might change his statement. “Good boundary setting makes good companies and good families.

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