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Art of setting boundaries

A crazy little thing called "no" • 3 min read

The power of guilt — In a study from Harvard Business School, a group of overworked employees at Boston Consulting Group were asked to take “predictable time off.”

In one configuration, the participants were required to take one full day off during the week. At first, everyone resisted but were ultimately forced to comply with the new schedule.

According to the study, the participants “either worked and felt guilty…or they didn’t work and felt guilty because of the stress they thought they were putting on their teammates.”



We last spoke about the importance of setting workplace boundaries to increase levels of productivity, to decrease levels of stress, and to improve work-life balance.

Let’s look at some further ways to build healthy boundaries:

It’s all about patience

Boundaries need to be verbally asserted and then followed up with action. When people cross them, don’t get upset right away.

Good things take time, and you might have to remind people of your limits, as your own priorities are subjective — others might forget about them and go back to the old ways. Forgiveness and mutual understanding will build healthy relationships.

Power through the guilt

Is it merited?

Try to focus on the real benefits of boundaries, not on the guilt.

What actions would you take if your guilt didn’t control you?

Even if your guilt refuses to budge, allow yourself those uncomfortable feelings and take action anyway. Cultivate a new ‘wait-and-see’ approach by pushing through the guilt and waiting until tomorrow to answer that non-urgent email.

Most messages can wait! Call someone back later, rather than interrupting important deep work.

Soften the blow with alternatives

Instead of saying a firm “no”, you could soften the blow.


“I can reduce the content of what I'm giving you and do it by Thursday, or I can do a more thorough version and give it to you on Thursday week"

Alternatives give others a greater sense of control — you’re not denying them everything, and you’re sending a strong message that you still want to work with them.

Ok, how do I get started?

Try to avoid offering an onslaught of reasons when you say “no”.

Too much information can lead to too much discussion, weakening your position and boundaries.

For example, avoid saying you can’t go to the work event because you have to visit your mum in hospital. This will allow for further discussion, perhaps with the suggestion that you can visit your mum the following day. Then you’d be forced to say:

“But that wouldn't work because..."

Instead, say:

“I wish I could but I really can't tomorrow", maybe adding "...because of family commitments."

and leave it at that.

To soften the blow, you could say:

“But I'll be keen to come to the next event."

Key takeaways

  1. Good things take time, and while your priorities are super-important to you, they won’t be as important to others. So, if people forget and cross one of your outlined boundaries, gently remind them of your expectations and stick to them.

  2. Identify the source of your guilt. When we find the courage to push through our guilt and accept the possibility of not having to please everyone all the time, this will help us to normalise boundary setting.

  3. Avoid over-explaining yourself when you say “no” to something. This can weaken your position and boundary. Instead, give a concise response and, perhaps, offer an alternative solution which still signals a willingness to collaborate.


Think big. act small

Do you think you need to establish clearer boundaries?

If so, why not try to focus on developing a clearer communication style when outlining your objectives?

This will help avoid the disappointment of others while empowering you in your position.


Content sources

  • Forbes, 2019, Caroline Castrillon, ‘10 Ways To Set Healthy Boundaries At Work’

  • Harvard Business Review, 2013, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, Stop Work Overload By Setting These Boundaries

  • Harvard Business Review, 2020, ‘Set “Time Boundaries” to Protect Your Schedule’

  • Harvard Business Review, 2021, Melody Wilding, ‘How to Set Boundaries with a Chatty Colleague’

  • Harvard Business Review, 2021, Priscilla Claman, ‘Managing Conflicts’

  • Huffington Post, Mammekwa Mokgoro, 2021, ‘This Is Why Setting Personal And Professional Boundaries Is Good For Your Health’

  • Psych Central, 2021, ‘7 Tips for Setting Work Boundaries for Yourself and with Others’

  • Psychology Today, 2021, ‘How to Set Better Boundaries at Work Without Feeling Guilty’

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