How to set boundaries with a new employee as a manager

We all want to be liked, but leadership requires a lot more than that.

We originally assigned this article to someone else. Kaitlin King, specifically, a long-time contributor who we can always count on for high-quality articles, clever banter, and thoughtful advice. So I definitely wasn’t expecting to get a note from her saying she was stuck — completely and utterly — when it came to writing the article. “Ugh, I think I just kinda suck at this topic myself and actually need to read this article written by someone else to learn from it,” she said. “I don’t think I have enough authority, understanding or perspective to write on it.”

I hope I haven’t offended Kaitlin by outing her like this, but I have a point and it’s this: our goal at Career Contessa is to address the tough subjects that no one else covers and, sometimes, that means we find we don’t know what to say. At all.

In thinking about establishing boundaries with an employee, my personal experience comes up lacking, too. I could definitely write an essay on what not to do. So with two writers officially stumped, I decided to take an alternative approach: I emailed two of our mentors to ask them to answer the question for me. And I did a hefty amount of research. Here’s the ultimate management game plan:

The problem with being a “nice” boss

In an article for Slate, Laura Smith describes her own failed experience at playing it cool as the owner of her first business:

“I allowed my coffee shop to become characterized by permissiveness. Some took advantage of this permissiveness by making up excuses for being late, or by trying to do as little work as possible. Those who didn’t take advantage became resentful of the other employees, and of me. It brought out the worst in everyone.”

For most of us just starting out in management (hey, I’m right there with you), it’s easier to remember past terrible bosses — the ones that were cold or conniving, too strict or just plain absurd — than it is to remember the ones who weren’t all that bad. You fear getting dubbed a “horrible boss,” and you’re desperate to not lose face in front of your colleagues — after all, you’re a nice person. So you think: “What if I just play it cool?”

Well, there’s a “cool parent” archetype for a reason (think: Amy Poehler as Regina George’s mom in Mean Girls). Failure to assert boundaries inevitably equals a failure in leadership, resulting in a parent who’s susceptible to disrespect and, worse, mockery.

To imply that managing a team is like parenting is a bit problematic, but there are certainly parallels. For a relationship, personal or professional, to function properly there must be a common understanding and clear structure. In her piece, Smith goes on to argue:

“Most people are only as good as their systems allow them to be … The idea that we must tell adults what to do and exactly how to do it is a hard pill to swallow for most … But instead of thinking of it as telling people what to do, what if we see it as simply providing people with boundaries? That’s closer to something palatable, although the paternalism still makes me cringe.”

So playing too nice will ruin us, but playing hardball means we’re treading a fine line between leadership and despotism. How do you hit that sweet spot — not a jerk, not a doormat — that sets you up for managerial success?

Boundaries first, boundaries second

First impressions really do mean a lot, particularly for bosses. You have to start strong.

“Within any relationship, it’s human nature to want to be liked and wanting to be liked is often the greatest barrier in establishing boundaries as a new manager,” says CC mentor, Kara Brothers-Phillip, who works as a strategy lead at Google.”As a manager, your primary responsibility is to create an environment where your team members are able to reach their full potential. Being liked is nice, but being viewed as an effective and trustworthy leader is far more important.”

1. Set Personal Boundaries ASAP

So how do you build that trust? According to PsychCentral, by setting boundaries early — as soon as you start the job — and by consistently sticking to them yourself. You’ll need to clearly communicate your own limits as well as your expectations: “For instance, if you don’t want your colleagues and clients to contact you at all hours, verbally tell them the hours you will be available for work-related conversations.”

Leading by example is a very real thing. In fact, in a recent interview, the founder of the social media game-changer, Meet Edgar, Laura Roeder, argues that it’s actually essential. “You can say, ‘Don’t email in the evening.’ But then if the owners of the company are always sending you emails in the evening, it’s implied that maybe you’re supposed to respond.” Based on this logic, MeetEdgar has a strict no evenings, no weekends email policy — and Roeder abides by it.

2. Create a Real Structure (With Schedules, Agendas, Feedback Loops … )

Boundaries get blurry when you aren’t meeting with your team regularly. This is one element I can speak to. As Career Contessa has grown over the past year, we’ve added several new people to our team. Suddenly, off-the-cuff meetings or lunch chats about upcoming projects just weren’t working anymore. In fact, the result was chaos and maybe (OK, actually) some tears.

Without touching base in structured, recurring meetings, we were all starting to feel like we were spinning. Now we have all-team meetings that happen weekly complete with detailed agendas, plus regular check-ins with Lauren, CC’s founder. Oh and we’ve added one more incredible structural detail: Basecamp.

No matter how creative you are or how creative your team is, you’ve got to commit to a clear organizational plan. And since you’re the boss, that plan falls on you. You’ll design, lead, and maintain it. As Jill Jacinto, Associate Director of WORKS puts it, you’ll need to “create an atmosphere of transparency and make sure to articulately delegate tasks and responsibilities.”

If you expect your team to make deadlines and follow your rules, you have to make sure the team understands what those deadlines and rules are.

Give them the benefit of the doubt

1. Believe In Your Team First, Doubt Them Second

We all know the pitfalls of playing it too strict. Maybe you had a military regimented household growing up or maybe you just remember a horrible elementary school teacher who didn’t allow you room to breathe, let alone get creative. Management requires placing a little faith in your leadership team.

Says Jacinto: “Employees want to feel needed and respected. Do not be condescending, share your viewpoints with them, your strategy and ask for them to contribute.”

When Roeder launched MeetEdgar, she’d never been a boss before. “I had never hired anyone. I had never been anyone’s superior in any way. But a lot of that, honestly, was a blessing in disguise because I never had to unlearn bad corporate behaviors,” says Roeder, “A lot of the ways that I’ve managed people is just: respect people, assume that people are doing their best.”

We take jobs knowing full well that they’re going to be an integral part of our lives. So why assume that your employees aren’t doing the best they can? Give every person you supervise enough space and freedom to get their work done, plus take some risks along the way.

If they mess up, you can address it then, but don’t assume they will simply because you don’t know how they work yet or you think they lack experience. Let them try, remain open and available to them so they feel comfortable soliciting your feedback, then wait.

And in the event that they do mess up (just like you), make sure there’s a road for them to regain trust. One mistake doesn’t warrant ostracisation.

2. Instead of Forcing Unity, Plan For Differences

Don’t assume that you need to regulate someone simply because they work differently than you. Instead plan, adapt, and compensate for those differences. You can regulate how work gets done to an extent, but you should also accept feedback and hold regular meetings with each of your employees to see how they’re feeling and what they need to get the work done. Maybe they do better with strict deadlines, maybe they thrive when they’re planning their own hours. By adapting your environment to suit multiple work styles, you’ll set yourself up for a more productive work day all around.

3. Recognize That Your Work Isn’t Earth-Shattering

Here at Career Contessa, when we’re stressing about getting the editorial calendar in order before one of us goes on vacation or about what will happen when the marketing manager gets sick, we can count on Lauren to say, “This isn’t brain surgery.”

And she’s right. If an article fails to publish one Tuesday morning, or if there’s a glaring typo in our weekly newsletter, we’re not harming anyone. We’re probably annoying people, and we’re certainly going to be embarrassed, but we’re not neurosurgeons responsible for saving lives.

That logic can and should be applied to anything you do. It’s not that you need to tell your employees that they don’t need to worry about the work they’re doing, but keeping it all in perspective is key.

Expect your employees to do their jobs and do them well. Hold them responsible for their mistakes (the key word here is their — team mistakes are team mistakes, and you’re part of them). But if a f*ck up happens? Treat it with the weight it deserves.

No exaggerated panic attacks, no yelling, no shaming, no team meeting roasts. Your team will respect you that much more for keeping sight of what really matters—like getting the work done and done well so that everyone can go home to their families and friends and actually get a good night’s rest.
We take jobs knowing full well that they’re going to be an integral part of our lives. So why assume that your employees aren’t doing the best they can?

What if there’s a real issue?

This is the least fun part of the article, but I’m sure, like me, you were wondering: what if an employee does something bad? Like, really bad. How do I respond?

“There will always be employees who miss a meeting, blow a sales demo, clash with higher-ups and it is your job to fix this issue ASAP,” says Jacinto: “A good leader always keeps their temper under wraps. Have a private meeting with the team member and give them the opportunity to explain their actions. Next, let them know that mistakes happen and how they approached the solution (or whatever it may be) was unacceptable and needs to be course corrected. Give them guidance on how to move forward, create an open door policy. Explain to them why and how their actions affect the company’s bottom line. Depending on the severity of their behavior, be firm in your response. Let them know the type of behavior you expect to see and work with day in and day out and what will not be tolerated.”

Brothers-Phillips agrees that you should have the conversation in private, but argues that you should bring up their behavior in relation to the big picture: “In your conversation, reinforce that your primary responsibility is to your company and part of that responsibility means creating an atmosphere of fairness within the team. You value them as a team member, however, his or her behavior could be jeopardizing how others view your dedicated loyalty to everyone and you need them to stop doing x,y,z behavior in the best interest of the team.”

All in all, there’s a pretty clear theme here: transparency, honesty, and open dialogue. Make sure that your employees know that they can come to you to discuss any issues or questions they have. And always focus on communicating your own expectations as clearly as possible. Employees can only respect boundaries they know exist.

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.