How To Keep Shiny, Happy Boundaries When You’re The Boss

by Jennifer Romolini

We’re excited to share this excerpt from WEIRD IN A WORLD THAT’S NOT: A Career Guide for Misfits, F *ckups, and Failures by Jennifer Romolini:

Being a boss for the first time is lonelier than you imagine. You’re an authority figure now, someone on whom employees can project their insecurities, doubts, company ill will, and on-the-job fear. Given your new “boss” status, you may be left out of the fun, no longer invited to last-minute coffee grabs or after-work drinks. Every interaction becomes more complicated. You will awkwardly and unknowingly shut down otherwise lighthearted Slack chats just by weighing in. Even if you make a hilarious joke, that joke has different meaning than before: no one knows whether they can laugh or not, or if they do laugh, they’ll wonder if you’ll think they’re a kiss-ass or if everyone else will think they’re a kiss-ass. Your at-work inner circle will become smaller. You may miss camaraderie; you will be excluded from cross-platform shit-talk and chitter-chatter sessions of which you were once a part and maybe even a ringleader. Now these sessions will often be about you. Depending on the health of your ego, either you will accept this new reality and be like “That’s awesome, you guys have fun. It makes me happy that you’re happy” or, like an aging, suburban mom unable to let go of her youth, you will awkwardly insert and insinuate yourself into your employees’ lives, force them to be your friends. You will make it weird.

As a new boss, you may want to seem cool and fun. Even if you are a paragon of self-sufficiency and emotional tidiness (which, if you’ve picked up this book . . . ), you will probably want people to like you. This is a normal instinct for normal people in normal situations. But being a leader is not normal. There are different rules. The first is that you’re going to need some good boundaries.

One of the more popular healthy-people advice clichés, one of those things you hear in conversation and see in books, the magic bullet that will solve all of your current personal and professional problems and improve relations with your boyfriend/ dog/boss/employee/mom, is to just “get some good boundaries.” Just git sum. Get some electrical tape into the fourth dimension of your soul and mark off the places that are available to people you work with and those that are not and stick that tape down strong and then everything is going to get better. Girl, you know it’s true.

Even if you intellectually understand what this means, even if you get that you shouldn’t be BFF with people who work for you, putting the “boundaries” advice into practice is easier said than done, particularly if you’ve never had to do it before, if you are watery and heartful, if you run deep with empathy and self- consciousness, if you have warm blood.

Jennifer Author Photo Credit Shaun GuckianJennifer Romolini; Photo Credit: Shaun Guckian

Bad boundaries are easier to define than good ones. Boundaries-lacking bosses ooze all over employees. They tell them too much, they act like peers and friends, but then, seemingly arbitrarily but really because some serious boss shit has come up, they freeze them out. You shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t get in your employees’ physical space, sit on their laps, show them your breasts, hug them when they don’t want to be hugged. (My real-life experience may have been a tad strange, I guess?)>You shouldn’t tell your employees about your marriage, or conflicts with your nanny, cleaning lady, or trainer, and leave them to do nothing but mutely, awkwardly stare at you and your boss-lady problems when really they just came in to ask a question about work, one that goes unanswered be- cause of all these bad boundaries.

Bosses who lack boundaries often have the best intentions. They’re just trying to create lighthearted working environments and keep things fun, but they fail to realize that to work efficiently with a minimum of confusion, employees need structure and authority. Sometimes they need you to be the fun killer; to give an unequivocal no or a strict, plans- destroying deadline or a firm “This isn’t good enough. I need you to try again.” For work to actually work, someone has to be a dick, at least sometimes. And once you are a boss, you are the dick. You need to be OK with being disliked in the moment. No one makes good decisions by trying to curry favor or win approval. You need to understand that people who are mad will get glad again; you need to have perspective on the greater good.

Bosses with good boundaries are comfortable with this dick reality, and by extension they make others comfortable too. They’re cool with having control (or they fake being cool) and power (and they don’t abuse it). They are consistent and fair, they set rules and expectations that make employees feel safe. They don’t make it all about them. They don’t turn their insecurity or their narcissism or both into an interactive theater show, a daily performance of “Look at me! I need attention!,” and force everyone in their wake to participate, at the expense of actual work.

Having good boundaries as a boss means keeping yourself contained. It also means protecting yourself from employees who want to take too much from you, not internalizing things that are definitely NOT your problem, such as other people’s insecurity, incompetence, laziness, jealousy, and gossip, and addressing things that are—overall morale, efficient distribution of work, clarity around expectations and goals, your own human failings and mistakes. It’s ballsy work. It takes confidence you might not have at first, but you can get it.

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From the book WEIRD IN A WORLD THAT’S NOT: A Career Guide for Misfits, F *ckups, and Failures by Jennifer Romolini. Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Romolini. To be published on June 6, 2017 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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