My friend, Angelique, teaches voice lessons on the side. She enjoys working with students, but not enough to do it for free. She had one student that might or might not show up or wander in 15 minutes late for a 30-minute lesson. Angelique was concerned about being mean and just let this behavior continue until she reached a breaking point, where she said, “I’d rather lose the client than keep going like this.”
What did she do? Set a boundary. She told the client that she needed to show up on time, and if she couldn’t do that, the relationship would sadly have to end.
The client started showing up on time.
Why hints don’t work.
Angelique had dropped numerous polite hints (“I really appreciate it when people can give notice if they will be late or absent.”). And she learned the reality of hints: people that don’t have good boundaries assume the hints are for other people.
This is also why issuing a new policy to solve one person’s problem never works. Everyone who didn’t have a problem with the amount of time they were in the bathroom worries that they are the problem or feels the management is being too nit-picky. The person writing her blog from the bathroom stall ignores it, assuming that it’s just another throw-away policy.
So, instead of sending new policies out to her faithful and prompt students, she spoke directly to the problem student. She set clear expectations (arrive on time) and a clear consequence (I will drop you as a student). In this case, it worked in getting the student to show up. But it would have still worked if Angelique had to fire the client. Not every client is worth keeping.
Adverse possession of our time.
Many of us don’t do well with boundaries. Some people do, of course! But, many of us (and many more women than men) feel guilty about charging for our time and skills and don’t like to leave coworkers in the lurch. So, we let other people walk over our boundaries until there are no boundaries left.
In property law, there’s a principle called “adverse possession” where if your neighbor openly and brazenly puts his swingset on your lawn, begins mowing that patch of lawn, and you do nothing about it, the land eventually becomes theirs. (Your local laws may vary.) Of course, you don’t want that to happen, and you’ll tell your neighbor to move his swingset.
But, we let people smash down our personal boundaries protecting our time all the time until they feel absolutely entitled to our time.
How often do we hear about the loyal employee who always stays late and gets passed over for promotions in favor of the clock watcher who leaves at 4:55 every day? People stop seeing the extra effort as extra because the company has taken adverse possession of that time. They firmly believe it’s theirs to do with as they like. The person who held fast to their boundaries gets credit for taking a single meeting after hours because the time still belongs to them.
Now, of course, this will vary by industry and profession. (Don’t expect your big banking job to have 9:00 to 5:00 hours. The company takes adverse possession of all your time from your first day at work.)
Putting down those first bricks can be difficult, and you may get a lot of pushback. In fact, if your boss has taken adverse possession of all your time, you may end up needing to change jobs to regain possession of your own life.
But, as you put those boundaries in place, you’ll find something amazing happens! People start to respect you more. You have more time. You have less stress. It’s absolutely worth your time to put up reasonable boundaries–even if you have to be direct.