New job, new boundaries

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

A career coaching client was facing a dilemma: Her manager had a last-minute meeting request, but she needed to get her child to a medical appointment.

What’s worse was that my client, a senior manager at a small tech startup, had just started this job.

We talked about how these early weeks are a great time to set — and defend! — boundaries with new colleagues. After all, it won’t be easier later, once precedents are set and expectations normalize.

But it feels risky when she wants to make a strong first impression.

Before she accepted the role, she and her new manager talked about her availability. Her child is disabled, which makes it particularly hard for her to accommodate last-minute, after-hours meetings.

Her new manager understands this. In theory.

But then he sent her a last-minute email asking her to attend an evening board meeting.

“What do I do?” she asked. “I have to get my kid to a therapy appointment, but I don’t want to seem flaky.”

“Oh, you’re so flaky taking care of your child,” I said sarcastically, and we moms had a laugh.

“Maybe I should ask him whether he needs me to attend,” she said tentatively.

That seemed like asking for trouble.

“What if he says, ‘Yes, I need you to be there?’” I asked. “By asking that question, you’ve created a problem that doesn’t yet exist.”

We talked about that “flaky” feeling.

“This is a story you’ve made up — it doesn’t exist outside your own head,” I explained. “It is not a helpful story.” After all, she hasn’t actually flaked out on anything. She’s not backing out of an agreement or commitment. Her boss has been delighted with her work.

“I’m thinking this is a good time to practice the ‘positive no,’” I suggested, referring to Dr. William Ury’s 2007 book, “The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No.”

As I wrote in a recent column, Ury frames a “positive no” as a hard “no” sandwiched between two yeses.

“What’s your first yes?” I asked. “This is something you believe in, or a shared value that you can both agree on — a positive signal that you’re on the same page.”

“I could tell him how much I’m enjoying the work and how committed I am to the mission,” she said.

“And what’s your no?” I asked. “Where are you drawing the line?”

“I could tell him I’m sorry but I can’t make this board meeting,” she said.

We talked about how she has nothing to apologize for. “Save your apologies for when you actually screw up,” I suggested.

“OK, how’s this: I’ll tell him that I won’t be able to make the meeting, and am unable to attend after-hour meetings at the last minute,” she said.

“Good. And what’s your second yes?” I asked. This is the yes that identifies a proposal or a compromise you are willing to make.

“Well, I could actually make the first hour of the board meeting,” she mused. “I really want to go. I think it will be helpful for me to better understand the organization.”

“I’ll tell him I’ll bow out after the first hour,” she continued. “And I’ll remind him that I can make evening meetings with enough lead time.”

She’s defending her line in the sand in a way that strengthens her relationship with her new manager. Dilemma solved.

For now.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.