How to Set Boundaries With Close Colleagues When You Get Promoted

Emerging leaders who transition into a leadership role often experience a certain amount of anxiety when they have to set boundaries with team members who were previously their peers.

The higher level of responsibility and decision making power immediately shifts their relationship with team members from peer-status to boss-direct report.

This shift in relationship status puts the new leader in a dilemma: As a leader, they need to re-educate people as to where the boundaries are so they can protect their time, priorities and goals. However, they don’t want to offend people who were formerly their peers.

Dealing with this dilemma is a critical part of growing as a leader. You’ll need to make a behavioral, communication and mindset shift.

It can be uncomfortable to re-educate people as to where the new boundaries are, especially if they’re a close colleague. But if you don’t, you risk being seen as somebody who isn’t capable in your new position. Here’s how to do it.

1. Re-frame Your Mindset

You’re no longer on the same level as your colleagues. You’re now a leader. With that comes a higher level of responsibility. In order for you to succeed in this new role, you need to be mentally ready and capable of setting boundaries with others.

That means you need to accept your new level of authority without feeling guilty. And you cannot let self-doubt get in your way. These mindset traps can become an obstacle to you setting boundaries effectively.

2. Outline Your Roles, Responsibilities & Expectations in a Meeting

When you start your new position as a leader, you’ll likely schedule a group meeting with your team.

In the first meeting, you need to announce and establish your expectations with them. What is their role? How has your role changed? What do you expect from them? In doing this, you let your team know where the new boundaries are.

Remember, people will only understand where the boundaries are through their interactions and conversations with you. Start off your new leadership position by announcing this right from the start.

3. If People Slip-Up, Talk to Them Immediately

When somebody oversteps the boundaries, you need to talk with them about it soon after it happens. Don’t wait until the third or fourth time they slip-up otherwise they’ll be conditioned into thinking they’re working within boundaries that are acceptable.

You should approach them soon after you understand they’ve overstepped the boundaries, but it doesn’t have to be in an aggressive way.

For example, raise the issue with them while walking to a meeting. Say something like, “It’s good we bumped into each other John. I wanted to talk to you about the report you sent me. I had a quick look and it seems it’s not ready for me to review yet. As you know, I have a lot on my plate now and I like to get reports when they’re revised and corrected. Could you have another look at it and send it back to me when it’s ready?”.

4. Word Your Requests Assertively

Before you were a leader, you probably worded your requests to colleagues in a passive, indirect way. Now as a leader, you need to change the way you word your requests and make them more assertive.

Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry to ask you this Jennifer, but would it be possible for you to e-mail Melanie about the event on Friday?”.

Transform your request into something more assertive and say this, “Jennifer, I need you to email Melanie about the event on Friday. Do you think you could do that?”.

You still sound friendly but you get the message across in a stronger way.

Here are some more ways to transform your requests from passive to assertive:

  • “Could you do me a favour?” > “I need you to do something for me”.
  • “Sorry, but could you call Peter tomorrow?” > “I’m going to need you to call Peter tomorrow”.
  • “It would be great if you can have this done by Friday”. > “I’d like this done by Friday. Do you think you could take care of that?”

5. Learn to Say “No”

Part of re-educating your colleagues as to where the boundaries are is learning how to say “no” to their requests when you need to. At first, saying “no” will be uncomfortable. It may never be a pleasant experience for you.

The reason for this is, for years you’ve not only conditioned yourself to say “yes” when people ask a favour of you, you’ve also conditioned others to expect you to say “yes”.

As a new leader, you need to change this and re-condition your own automatic responses and other’s expectations of you.

The key to saying “no” assertively is to make sure you actually verbalise the word “no” somewhere in your sentence. For example, “I see what you’re asking, Chris, but no, I can’t do that”, or “I won’t have any time on Friday, so “no”, I can’t go”.

Setting boundaries or re-establishing boundaries when you’re a new leader might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s a critical skill for you to learn so you can show that you’re capable in your new position.

When you set clear boundaries with your team and others in the office, it becomes part of your reputation and solidifies your leadership brand. It’s up to you to decide what leadership brand you want.

Communicate confidently and get your voice heard in meetings
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About Kara

Kara Ronin is the founder of Executive Impressions. She is an executive coach who specialises in leadership presence, social skills and business etiquette. She is also the creator of Bestselling Udemy course, Business Etiquette 101. Kara’s advice and unique perspectives have been featured in Time Inc., Business Insider, Ignites Europe (a Financial Times Service), The Muse, The Local France, The West Australian, and more. Kara works regularly with lawyers, investment bankers, and finance professionals to help them build presence, authority and influence in business. Get Kara's insights delivered straight to your inbox