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How Can I Get My Boss to Respect My Boundaries?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been a legal secretary to a lawyer for more than 18 months. She used to stay on top of things, but recently she has become unmotivated and unresponsive. For example, I prepare letters for her review and deliver them early in the morning, but she doesn’t review them until 30 minutes before I’m due to leave the office, and then she wants me to get the letters sent out. I work full-time and have four children, and I have told her on several occasions that I cannot get letters finished that late in the day as I need to leave. I’ve tried letting her know early in the day what time I will be leaving and the deadline for getting letters to me, yet she continues to send requests at the last minute and then becomes snippy when I tell her I won’t get them done until the next day. I don’t know how to deal with her lack of motivation. What can I do?

Legal Trouble

Dear Legal Trouble,

Congratulations. You’ve done a good job communicating your expectations and needs. You’ve laid out clearly what works for you and what doesn’t. You’ve carefully explained the reasons behind your expectations. You have given your boss ample reason to feel motivated to conform to your requests. If you have truly been as clear as you’ve said, the fact that she is not conforming means one of two things:

  1. She’s not motivated: Other interests or needs are more important to her than accommodating yours.
  2. She’s not able: You ask how to deal with “her lack of motivation.” You might be wrong here. It could be that the flow of her work makes your requests untenable. Her reality could be that urgent work frequently only manifests later in the day, so your needs don’t fit with workplace reality. If so, it’s an ability problem, not a motivation problem. Carefully consider this possibility. When you erroneously attribute problems to a lack of motivation you can amp up your own resentment and judgment. Acknowledging that ability plays a role helps you be more empathetic and patient with her.

With that said, whether your boss’s behavior relates to motivation or ability, you have two options given your commitment to your boundaries, and they are essentially the same: maintain your boundaries and live with the consequences.

Option 1: Maintain Boundaries and Stay

This course of action means that you’ll only complete letters that fit your schedule, unless you choose to make an occasional exception for exceptional circumstances. If you choose this option, you are choosing to accept the consequences of it, which likely include the following:

  • Her continued disappointment. You describe her as being “snippy” when you hold your boundary. Learn to be okay with that. She gets to feel disappointed and even resentful if she chooses. When you choose to continue to perform in ways that don’t work for her, you surrender the right to complain about her reaction. Find a way to be at peace with an upset boss without being petty or detached. One of the greatest indicators of emotional maturity is the capacity to care about others’ feelings without taking responsibility for them. Do your best to care for her needs without surrendering your own.
  • Employment uncertainty. If you fail to meet enough of your boss’s most important needs, there is a chance she will decide to find someone to replace you. She has the right to do that just as you have a right to set limits for what you offer your employer. Even if she doesn’t fire you, accept that your upward mobility may suffer in this situation.

The spirit of this option is that you must stop trying to mold her into what you want. You can’t successfully do that with anyone in your life. If you take this route, don’t do so dishonestly—secretly hoping you can cajole her into surrendering her preferences. If you do that, you’ll unconsciously develop resentments and judgments against her. She has forthrightly shown you who she is and what she wants. If you choose the benefits of staying with this employer over changing jobs, take full responsibility for your choice.

If, on the other hand, it’s too emotionally taxing to take Option 1, then you have Option 2.

Option 2: Maintain Boundaries and Go

Find a new work situation that fits your boundaries. This time make your schedule needs a strong filter for the jobs you consider. Don’t wait until you’ve been given a name tag and assigned a parking place to ensure it’s a good fit.

I know this kind of clarity doesn’t make your decision easier. But in my experience taking full emotional responsibility for life’s many tradeoffs helps you live in greater peace with both the upsides and downsides. I’d rather live in peaceful responsibility than insatiable victimhood.

Best wishes in your choice,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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10 thoughts on “How Can I Get My Boss to Respect My Boundaries?”

  1. Abby

    Option 3 – Instead of communicating on a one-off basis that you have to leave at X time, have a conversation with your boss about her expectations moving forward and whether the two of you can work out an understanding/compromise that will at the very least establish clear expectations that you can take or leave (stay/quit), without relying on your interpretation of her mood/snippiness/etc.

  2. Renee

    It sounds like it only takes 30 minutes for her to review the letters. Perhaps rather than handing her the letters to review early in the morning, you could schedule a daily 30-minute meeting in which the two of you review and discuss the necessary revisions.

    1. Connie

      That’s what I was thinking too Renee. It sounds like the system is broken, so change the system and hopefully it should go more smoothly.
      Having 30 minutes together might also give her some time to get to know the boss so she can figure out whats going on – getting the stress of the letters done may help her relieve time constraints and stress on the boss to change their dynamic.

  3. Courtney

    I agree with the two solutions above, and there may be another way to improve the work environment and your relationship. I would request a meeting with he to have a crucial conversation that starts with what you really want (ex. do you want to address this one point of conflict that you provided as an example or are you in general struggling to function as an effective team) and focuses on the facts. If I’m understanding your message, it seems that the circumstances lead to an inability to complete the tasks in the given timeline leaves you feeling like you’re unable to meet expectations. Give her the opportunity to share her perspective and if she wants to share any obstacles that she’s been facing which is causing the change in her work. Work together to find a solution, whether that’s a meeting time at 3:00PM to review letters/feedback or perhaps you can prepare the letters the evening before and ask her to review them so you can send them out in the morning. This may improve your work environment or help you to better assess whether the job is the right fit for you.

  4. Roz

    I love this response as it gets to the heart of the issue. It isn’t about the letters… if that gets resolved, something else will come up that is similar. I wished I had learned earlier on in my career that my choice to stay contributed to the fact that I had to deal with toxic work environments year after year. You work through what you can work through, but at the end of the day it is your choice to remain in that situation or find a new one. You may lose out on opportunities or money, but you may be better off for it. In the end, your employment is your choice. Change what you can change and accept what you can’t. Then decide your next move from there.

  5. Tom

    Another possible option, a crucial conversation, Ask what has changed, as originally the letters came back in a timely way that worked well. Then ask what can be done differently to get this back on track.

  6. kathleentague

    Piggybacking on Joseph’s response, another possible outcome to holding to your boundaries is that the boss’ behavior will change after experiencing the consequences a few times. Assuming you have had a heart-to-heart discussion in which you explain that you would like to be able to stay later but just cannot because of your obligations to your family, and prioritizing her letters first thing the following morning.

  7. Ann

    As a lawyer, I would be worried about a colleague who used to be on top of things but is now slipping. Legal secretaries are astute at spotting such problems. Client needs must take priority. Are court deadlines being missed? Are clients being ignored–phone calls not returned, emails unanswered, etc.? LT should seriously consider going to the office manager or managing partner to raise these concerns. To be most effective, LT should stress the risk to clients, rather than her own feelings.


    Great advice! This mindset can really be applied to a multitude of situations, not just employer/employee.

  9. Julinda

    I agree with several of the comments above that a “crucial conversation” needs to take place before “Legal Trouble” decides how to proceed.

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