Setting healthy boundaries is about being assertive explains Joan Burge

The administrative profession has changed and so have those in the profession. While many assistants already are confident and express their views and opinions, tens of thousands of assistants still want to know how they can set healthy boundaries in the workplace without offending others or losing their job. So, you are not alone.

What Happens If You Don’t Set Healthy Boundaries?

  • You work longer hours.
  • You use personal time to sift through emails (exception – if that is part of your job).
  • You take on more work than you should.
  • You feel personally attacked.
  • You are stressed.
  • You feel underappreciated.
  • You are underutilized.
  • People take advantage of your good nature.
  • You sacrifice your needs for others (and resent the person later).
  • You won’t fulfill your potential.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In”, says “We are a generation suffering greatly from an endless work schedule – we must set boundaries, or we will crash at some point. I guarantee it.” Sheryl is talking about setting personal boundaries in terms of turning off technology and not being accessible every minute of the day to everyone. Setting boundaries goes way beyond technology.

Why It Matters!

We all have needs to be met in the workplace so we can do our job. We also must make sure people do not walk all over us. The benefits to us are:

  • Feeling in control.
  • Building confidence.
  • Achieving our goals.
  • Gaining self-confidence.
  • Improving communications.
  • Creating win-win situations.
  • Expanding your influence.
  • Gaining greater job satisfaction.

Setting boundaries requires a delicate balance of various skills. We teach people by our actions how we will and will not be treated, and how we think, feel and behave. When someone violates our rights and we don’t say anything, we teach them it’s okay to dominate and manipulate us. We therefore create stress in our lives. The best time to assert yourself is early in the relationship.

Passive, Aggressive and Assertive

Before I get into how to set boundaries, I’m going to start by explaining the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive. Setting healthy boundaries is about being assertive.


A passive person only cares about what others think and making sure everyone else’s needs are met. You might be thinking, Isn’t that a good thing? No. Not when we sacrifice ourselves or what we need to get done for the sake of others. Passive people can become resentful or blow up later. Passive communication is when you bend over backwards not to hurt another person, beat around the bush, avoid eye contact, apologize for your feelings, whine or complain.


Aggressive people only care about themselves; they don’t care what they say or how they say it as long as they get what they want. Aggressive communication is when all you care about are your needs, doing whatever it takes to get what you want at the expense of others.


Assertive people care that their own needs are met and care about others. They think about how they will communicate in a caring way and still get what they need. Assertiveness is saying what you mean and asking for what you want in a clear, factual, and straightforward manner and without apology.

The three essential skills of assertiveness are: verbal, non-verbal (body language), and cognitive (our thought processes). If we are to succeed in being assertive, all three elements must be in place.

Attitude of Confidence

Assertiveness has to do with having an ‘attitude of confidence.’ It is an attitude of self-respect; it is an attitude of respecting other people’s rights. It is an aura of confidence. When you are assertive, you not only ensure that your needs are met to get the job done, but you help others be more efficient and effective.

Being assertive will not be easy for everyone. It is a skill you can learn and the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. This does not mean, though, that you will never feel intimidated. Again, situations change and the people we interact with change.

The Little Voice

We all have a little voice inside our heads. Sometimes the voice is helpful and other times it is not. Ensure that your thoughts are supporting assertive behavior. This works best when participants are prepared to work together openly.

In Person versus Email or Text

The #1 priority when setting boundaries is to talk to the person, in person, face-to-face. If that is not possible, then #2 is to talk to the person on the telephone. My #3 choice would be Skype or Facetime. This could also be the #2 choice.

7 Steps to Being Assertive

1. Outwardly confront something instead of holding it in or stewing over it

Passive people hold things in. They keep their feelings buried and do not like confrontation. Therefore, they are walked over and stressed. While you may want to take some time to think about the situation and how you want to respond, do not sit on it for days and weeks. Choose your words carefully.

2. State your opinions clearly

You are entitled to your opinion. When communicating with others take time to be clear when expressing your opinions and especially do not say anything that would hurt another person’s feelings.

3. Walk away at your choosing

Passive people walk away because they feel intimated by a person or the situation. An assertive person walks away because it’s just not worth more time or energy.

4. Be active, not reactive

Assertive people act, but they also stop and think before they take action. Again, they craft the message they want to deliver so the other person will be open to what they say.

5. Establish deadlines

You can start this today! Many Executive and Administrative assistants will ask, “When do you need this?” Of course, the common answer is, “As soon as you can get it to me,” or, “As soon as possible.” Learn to ask people, “By when do you need this?” Get the people who assign you tasks to commit to the latest date by which they need something, not the soonest. This helps the person giving you the assignment set their own priorities and helps you prioritize your workload.

6. Do not accept inappropriate behavior

If there is anything that does not feel right or appropriate to you in the workplace, you must tell the offending person the action or words are not acceptable to you. A simple example for Assistants is the person who always comes to the Assistant’s workspace and takes pencils or pens or whatever. If you don’t like that, say something. My point is you do not have to accept behaviors that makes you frustrated, stressed, or uncomfortable. My favorite saying is, “People will continue to treat you as you allow them to.”

7. Go to the source

People tend to complain to their friends or co-workers about someone at work who upset them, or they don’t like. That does not change the situation or how you feel – at least not permanently. When something arises with another person, you need to go directly to the source. Use positive communication skills. If you hear something via a third party, make sure you have all your facts before going to the source.

Risk Awareness


When you dare to set boundaries, it’s important to weigh the risk because you aren’t guaranteed the outcome. Be willing to take a chance, knowing things may not turn out like you hope.

There is a higher risk level if you are setting boundaries with your executive than a peer. Your executive is still the executive and your manager. If you need to negotiate your workload with your executive, then talk to your executive.


Minimize the risk involved so your message is received and your professional image remains intact.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

 If you are doubtful as to whether to assert yourself in a particular situation, you should weigh the pros and cons. Caution: It is not the number of pros vs cons that is important so much as the impact of each pro and con. You might have five pros on your list and only one con. But if the weight of the con is far greater than the weight of the pros, then don’t take action.

Start with the End in Mind

Setting healthy boundaries is all about communication – verbal and non-verbal, plus being confident and caring. Here are some specific techniques:

  • State exactly what you want to happen or exactly what you need.
  • By when does this have to happen?
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Purposely use impact words, such as ‘need’ vs. ‘would be nice if …’
  • Speak clearly and with a confident tone.
  • Write with confidence and be concise.

Many changes have taken place in our world due to COVID-19. Thousands of assistants (as well as others) are working from home – which is even more reason to establish boundaries in your professional life!

Joan Burge is known as the pioneer of the administrative training industry. Joan is an accomplished author, professional speaker, corporate trainer, and coach. After working in the administrative profession for 20 years, Joan founded Office Dynamics ... (Read More)

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