Dealing with Power Imbalances When Setting Boundaries

All of this is pretty straight forward, unless you have an unreasonable person in your life. Someone who expect you to be available when they are. Someone who wants a response within minutes to any email. Someone who expects you to answer the phone. In which case you’ll need to prepare yourself for a difficult conversation

And it is even harder when they are a person in a more powerful position than you. Such as a supervisor or manager. 

In this situation it is important to get clear on the impact on you. How does their expectations of your availability impact you? You should be able to complete sentences such as “When you call me at [time] it makes me feel [something].” Or “My PhD/research is a major part of my life, but not the only part. I need time do other things. I can’t be available [time]. Time away from research helps me be a better researcher and a better person.” You might even explain how you like to use different communication, “I see email as asynchronous communication. The sender sends it when they are ready, and the recipients can read it when they are ready. So, I use email to communicate things I’ve agreed on either in person, on the phone or in some other meeting. I don’t use it to convey urgent or time sensitive information.”

I’d also recommend confirming their performance expectations of you. Not when they expect you to be working or to respond to a call or email. Rather, when do they want the work started or finished by? And, how does that fit within other work you are already doing – for them, for the project or for other research work. Is it necessary to put in more hours to get the job done? 

One client of mine had a paper to-do-list. Every time she got given something new, she added it to the list. Crossed off others as they were complete. Each day, she put the list in priority order. When new items came onto the list – especially from people more senior to her – she was able to show them the list and ask what should be removed or moved in order to complete the new task. It helped everyone. She maintained good records of her work. And her colleagues got a much truer appreciation of what she did. And, it also made the people she worked with re-think their requests. Now, they were seeing their urgent, and important tasks in the context of everything going on. Not, what was just immediately apparent to them when they asked for her time.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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