Fresh out of grad school, I took a job at a management consulting firm in Washington, DC. My employer was a large private sector company; all of my clients were government agencies. I was excited to help public sector organizations become more effective in carrying out their missions.
In my early days on the job, a more senior consultant kindly took me aside and offered these words of advice:
“This company will take as much from you as you are willing to give it. It’s up to you to decide how much is enough.”
At the time, this admonition reminded me of the Tom Cruise film “The Firm,” in which a company literally takes over the lives of its employees. But upon further reflection, I realized that it’s simply a fact of organizational life. Organizations will take from their employees as much as those staff members give them. This doesn’t mean that the organization is inherently greedy or evil.
As a salaried employee, I always worked full-time, but it was up to me to decide how high above and beyond those hours I was willing to go. I believed in my projects and wanted to do the best for my clients, but it was up to me to keep myself from becoming overly identified with the work.
I went on to have a successful – in my own estimation, at least – career at that company. I worked with great colleagues and managers who valued my contributions. And I got to do some really cool work. I helped set up a nonprofit organization to promote homeownership on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. I helped reduce wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, DC (and if you’ve ever spent time at the DC DMV you know this is no small feat). I helped create a brand-new government office (within a then-new agency called the Department of Homeland Security) to help immigrants who wanted to become US citizens.
Because I set some boundaries around my work, during those years I got enough sleep, stayed healthy, and nurtured important relationships. I even did a significant amount of volunteer work, co-founding a nonprofit organization to tutor and mentor at-risk youth in the District of Columbia.
Setting boundaries is never easy, especially for people who want to do well in their careers, help others, and (like first-borns such as myself) please authority figures.
I think it is even more challenging to set boundaries when working for a development NGO or INGO – organizations that can claim the “moral high ground” of a mission-driven not-for-profit or public organization. After all, we’re drawn to work at these organizations because we believe in their mission – which makes it harder to say “No” at work.
This is all the more reason for setting boundaries at work – something only you can do, not your organization.
Yes, you may get lucky and have a nice boss who won’t give you an assignment at 5:30 pm, or who may bug you to take all your vacation days. But you shouldn’t count on having a nice boss as a boundary-setting strategy. As a professional, drawing boundaries is up to you.
What kind of boundaries must you set? Only you know what is most important to you, what fits your life, priorities, and organization. Here are some ideas:
- What time will you go home from work most days? (understanding that there will be unusual times when longer work days are required)
- How many weeks of travel will you do in a given month, quarter, or year?
- How many proposals will you write, above and beyond your regular job responsibilities?
- How should people in the office treat you?
Setting boundaries benefits you, obviously. But in the long run, it also benefits your organization – and your managers, direct reports, colleagues, project partners, and stakeholders. This is because your boundaries will ensure that you get enough physical rest and mental/emotional renewal to keep you energized for your work, sharp-minded, and happier on the job. Boundaries can help keep you from burning out, becoming ineffective, and/or ultimately quitting when the organization still needs you.
Good fences make good neighbors. And good fences make good careers — especially in international development, where the demands are many. Build some good boundaries to make sure you’re at your best on the job, and more successful in your long-term career.
I’d love to hear about times when you’ve established boundaries, or when you have struggled to do so. What has been the effect? Please share in the comments below.