One of the stickiest situations at work relates to boundary setting when it comes to collaboration.
You’re already swamped with your own to-do list, and as more and more responsibilities get tacked on to your daily routine, your productivity shrinks away.
It’s a tough situation because you want to serve your colleagues and clients to the best of your ability, but it might be interfering with your healthy work-life balance.
When you realize it’s time to set boundaries at work, it can be hard to get started—where do you draw the line between unreasonable requests and extra tasks that could help your career in the long run? In this brief blog, we will give you real-world scenarios and actionable tips so you can learn to set expectations and professional boundaries in a friendly but firm way.
Is it wrong to say “that is not my job”?
Some worry that saying “that is not my job” will come across as too rigid or that it presents an anti-team mentality.
The site Ask a Manager says this:
“Refusing to do a particular task because it’s not in your job description is a good way to lose the support of your boss. Job descriptions aren’t comprehensive, and most people end up doing work that doesn’t fall squarely within their job description. Insisting on sticking rigidly to your job and nothing but your job usually doesn’t end well. But there are times when it’s appropriate — and in fact necessary — to communicate that you aren’t the right person to do something.”
So the short answer is: It depends. Established boundaries are healthy at work (as within any type of relationship in life) and help you stay focused on your tasks and responsibilities.
Keep in mind that in these situations it’s important to communicate why you can’t help with an ask and explain the reasoning behind your decline to help. Clarity is key.
Next, let’s look at a few different situations and how you might respond to them.
Consider the situation and respond accordingly
So how do you sort through these situations and decide when you should say, “That is not my job”? Let’s look at a few different scenarios and see how you could respond appropriately and professionally.
Situation #1: A coworker is trying to dump his/her responsibility on someone else because they just don’t want to do it
Say a coworker asks you to put together a report on work emails for an upcoming meeting. The subject matter falls within that person’s purview, so it’s something they should be taking care of (but maybe they just don’t want to do it.) Your coworker positions it as a small ask that won’t eat up too many of your office hours.
What do you do?
In an instance like this one, it’s okay to just say no. Explain what you’re working on and why you don’t have the bandwidth for additional work, and be kind but firm. Stand your ground and be firm in your boundaries–it’s likely they’ll respect you more for it and they will see you are paying attention to priorities.
Be honest about your availability and what you realistically can take on. Say something like, “I don’t have the bandwidth to do a good job on this right now and give you the help/attention this deserves.”
Situation #2: A manager is trying to give you more responsibility
Imagine that your manager asks you to take on a new project at work. It’s an opportunity for you to lead the charge on an important task, but it also entails quite a bit of work on your part. It could be a good challenge that allows you to prove yourself worthy of advancement–or it might just be more work.
What do you do?
Thank your manager for the opportunity and lean in. What initially seems like “extra work” might be an excellent opportunity for advancement within your job with a slight perspective shift. Start a conversation around the potential opportunities to see if you can use this as a chance to grow within your role or to incentivize the extra work required.
However, if it is just more work with no benefit offered to you (like a pay increase, title change, or time off), this might also be the path to resentment at work.
If it’s just not realistic for you to handle it with your current workload, explain the dilemma and ask for your boss’s insight on what you should do. You might respond with something like, “I’ve got to focus on X right now because of [impending deadline, project requirements, etc.], so I won’t be able to realistically help you with Y unless we can offload a few other tasks.”
Situation #3: A coworker is in need of general assistance
What if a coworker comes to you with a genuine, reasonable request? Say they want you to weigh in with your perspective on a report or they want help presenting at an upcoming meeting. It’s not an outlandish request, and you do have something you can bring to the table that would add value–but it will require some time on your part.
What do you do?
If you can reasonably help your coworker with the task, go for it. Don’t be afraid to lend a helping hand when it makes sense, as these are moments in which you can strengthen rapport and camaraderie with your coworkers.
However, if the request extends beyond your bandwidth or area of expertise, you can always refer your coworker to the appropriate person so he or she can find the right, most appropriate person who can help. You could say, “That’s not really my area of expertise, but I think [X person] handles that.”
Situation #4: You work in a hectic organization in which it’s simply not clear who does what.
Maybe you work in a chaotic environment where there’s a real lack of organizational structure and role boundaries. Everyone wears a lot of different hats, so the parameters around what’s technically “your job” are fuzzy. When random requests and outlandish asks come up, you feel paralyzed and out of control within your position–and you feel like you always have to say yes.
What do you do?
If this is your reality, it’s probably time for you to have a talk with your direct supervisor and ask for clarity and/or a documented job description that outlines what’s expected of you, what you’re responsible for, etc.
Emphasize during the conversation that you want to grow within the role, but that you need direction and clarity about what your job really is in order to follow that path. You may explain that a current lack of clarity has you feeling a bit unfocused, and that you want to fix that. This will help ensure you stay focused on the right tasks, can establish benchmarks for your professional progress, and adds clarity around your day-to-day work.
The secret to having these conversations go well is to be sincere and to come from a place of understanding and shared rapport rather than anger, frustration, or annoyance. Your message will be better received if it’s genuine and not laced with emotions that can spur conflict.
That’s not my job: Four words and a single idea that could improve your work life
By learning different ways to respectfully say “that’s not my job”, your workday can have better productivity and an optimal workflow (which your team will ultimately appreciate.)
Bottom line: If you can evaluate situations and respond in an appropriate, professional manner, you’ll regain that feeling of control over your workday (and likely boost your happiness at work, too.)
A daily task manager template can help to make your work clear to others and create clear boundaries.
Try using it out and share it with your colleagues.