Thriving in Government - Part 3: Establish Boundaries

September 1, 2016


The third component to thriving in your federal job is a doozy. It is a simultaneously important and somewhat vague idea - setting boundaries. It seems like the most successful folks in any line of work are the ones that seem to have the most control. Maybe it's real, maybe it's a façade but in my experience, it's difficult to project a false sense of control for any significant period of time. That real control typically comes from someone's ability to set boundaries. Most of the academic work around the concept of "boundaries" comes from the field of psychology but there are many Organizational Psychologists or Organizational Behaviorists who are broadening the studies and suggestions to the work place. Everybody has different boundaries. My boundaries have certainly changed through the years and they were based off the different circumstances of my life. Marriage, kids, illness, family stuff… all of these affect your boundaries and it's probably best to consistently reassess and implement on a periodic basis. There are always different variables (and personalities) involved. Whatever your circumstances may be, I'd like to offer some suggestions for your consideration with regard to boundaries.

  1. Don't overdo it on the overtime. I'm not saying don't ever do overtime. I think there situations where it's perfectly okay to grab some overtime or comp time. That decision is clearly going to be based on your family situation, your financial outlook, or your need for some vacation time. Having stated that, I don't think it's perfectly okay for you to think that if you don't put in the OT, then the whole operation will be "up shit's creek." I'm sure you are a valuable player in your organization but that work will be there for you tomorrow. If it's that rare situation where the work will not be there, then whatever… go for it. If that rare situation keeps happening over and over and over and over… then you probably need to step back and reassess your work process. Which leads us to number 2.

  2. If you're finding yourself constantly short on time, thus affecting your exit from work, thus affecting everything else, then a good boundary (at that point) is to institute use of a personal Time Management Matrix like the Eisenhower Tool. (Ike was the president for a reason, folks.) I also like the approach suggested by David Allen. When you get tasked with an item (let's say an email) ask yourself if you can Do it, Defer it, Delegate it, or Drop it. If you can do it (and it meets the criteria of importance) then do it. If you can put it off a bit, then defer it. If you know someone else has the chops to get the job done, then Delegate it (and don't worry if you ACTUALLY CAN delegate something - you can… everyone can but that's a conversation for a different day). Lastly, if you don't really need to do it, the drop it. Dump it. Shift+Delete that email and never speak of it again.

  3. Distance yourself from toxic people. This one is a tough one in tight, gossipy offices, which is all the more reason to avoid toxic people. I'm not saying you can't engage them at all but if there's a boat load of negativity with that person on Lync or in the breakroom or wherever, you really need to not waste your time with them. If your interactions are making you feel uncomfortable or resentful or guilty for some reason, then back the fudge out of there. At the same time, surround yourself with life giving people in your office. It's perfectly okay (and supported by research) to have friends at work (next week's topic). 

Case study: A few years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) instituted a prolonged period of mandatory overtime for all employees who were directly responsible for the disability claims process (raters, developers, correspondence people). This was an effort that was targeted at reducing the disability claims backlog which was at its highest level ever. In combination with a new technology, some new processes, and mandatory overtime, the backlog was greatly reduced (I hope to write more on this later). Of course there are always other factors to consider in judging the success or failure of strategic decisions but the main metrics VA used to validate success were positive. That said, the mandatory overtime broke a lot of people. I don't think VBA decision makers were unaware of the fact that this was a huge ask of their employees… rather, they saw it as something that needed to be done. A necessary maneuver to do what was right for Veterans. Saying that, what is a regular worker to do in those situations? If the overtime is mandatory then you can't really wiggle around it. However, what that does mean is that you need to be a lot firmer with the things you can control. Enforce the other boundaries that you can enforce. Try working with your supervisor on the flexibility of working the overtime (can it be Saturdays? Sundays? Flex time? Etc). You might also need to say NO to a lot more stuff outside of work if they aren't important. It's really a balancing act of coping with the unavoidable thing you don't love and saying Yes to the things you do love. If you can't get around the overtime in this scenario, then it's important to pencil in a vacation and STICK TO IT. Be smart about how your manage your time. And surround yourself with life-giving people and distance yourself from the toxic Debbie Downers.


For more reading on boundaries, check out the hyperlinks above and also check out the following:

And the works of Henry Cloud, which come recommended by my wife:


Next time, I'll be talking about the importance of relationships (friendships) in your workplace (and also what that may mean in a virtual setting).



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Riley Evan Ross
Speaker and Writer Moderation Blog

I speak and write on the topic of moderation because I believe that a thorough re-examination of moderation can help our societies build change resilience and grow together.

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