Not Letting Overactive Loyalty Prevent Us From Drawing Boundaries at Work

May 27, 2024

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Many of us (myself included) have deep loyalty to many in our lives, and sometimes, it causes us to make decisions about work that are different than what we want or tolerate situations at work much longer than makes us happy. 

My dad gave me incredibly useful advice on this front when I was 25 that’s stuck with me since then. Let’s talk about it – with the aim of helping us reign in that overactive loyalty so we can draw boundaries at work. 

I also share actionable bite-sized time management strategies on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/_kellynolan_/. Come hang out with me there!

Full Transcript

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey hey! All right, so today we want to talk about something that I think a lot of us probably struggle with, which is a struggle to kind of draw and maintain boundaries for ourselves because of an overactive sense of loyalty. Often this pops up at work where we feel like we should be loyal and grateful and all sorts of things for our job, and because of that, we don’t stand up for ourselves when we should.

Now, this is something that came — I mean, just to take a step back, I’ve worked since I think I was 15, maybe 14. I’ve worked at Jamba Juice. I’ve worked at Caribou Coffee. I’ve worked at The Catering Company. I’ve coached tennis. I waited tables between college and law school. I also worked at a think tank. So I’ve worked a lot but it wasn’t until my 3L year of law school that this particular lightbulb switch went on for me.

What happened was, in my 3L year of law school, I had realized the summer before that I actually did not want to be a public defender in the way that I thought I did since I was in sixth grade. And so, I realized that I wanted to do civil litigation, and I was switching into that, but it was really late. If you’re not a lawyer, basically, at least when I went to law school, the summer after, particularly, your second year was when a lot of people summered at law firms and got that experience.

Now, actually, I went to law school in ‘08 when there was a huge crash. So in the summer after 1L year, very few people got to summer, but after 2L year, a lot of people did. And so, coming into 3L year, which is your last year of law school, I was very late to the game of wanting to work in a civil litigation firm, so I knew that I would have to shore up my experience to get that type of job. And so, I started clerking for a small litigation firm in Salem, Massachusetts.

Now, then, this second semester of that year, I also went for a judicial internship, and I got it. And I hadn’t realized, because I didn’t know these things at the time, that getting the judicial clerkship would mean I would have to decide between it and the civil litigation clerkship. I couldn’t do both. It was just a conflict of interest that, as an attorney, you would go before potentially that judge, and if someone’s clerking for both, it doesn’t go well ethically.

So I had to decide, and as I was deciding, I felt this overwhelming sense of loyalty to the civil litigation firm. They were taking a chance on me. They hired me as a 3L. I just felt like they were helping me out. I had no civil litigation experience, and they decided to hire me just four months earlier, and could I really leave on them in this scenario? So I called my dad.

“It’s Business” – 3:10

My dad is a very principled, loyal guy, so he’s a good person to talk to when you want to have that moral type of question. And so, I called him. I was talking through my predicament and that I felt like I had to stay at the civil litigation firm and forgo the judicial clerkship that I wanted to take, and I still remember he was like, “Could the firm fire you whenever they wanted?” And I was taken aback. I was like, “Yes.” He’s like, “Well then, you can leave whenever you want. It’s business.” And my 25-year-old brain was like [Record Scratch Sound] screeching like kind of a mini explosion, and it really stuck with me. It’s hard if you don’t know my dad, but he’s very principled, very loyal. And for him, of all people, to be like, “Yes, you can leave. It’s business,” it was very eye opening to me that that was in my power to do.

And so, I took the judicial clerkship, the law firm survived without me, and it really was a wonderful experience I’m so glad I got to do. But that principle of “could they fire you any minute? Then you can do what you need to do, and it is business” has stuck with me so often in my life because I am someone who will lean in hard when I’m working for someone else or for myself. I pride myself on excellent work product. I pride myself on showing up well for my colleagues and my clients. And so, that’s something that I just can naturally tend to do is lean too hard into that element when it becomes a detriment.

But that exchange with my dad kind of helps always bring me back to (and it’s helped me bring me back when I was a lawyer) the dynamic that it is just business. An employer pays us money to provide excellent work product and support, but that is it. That payment does not obligate you to continue working with them. It does not obligate you to work beyond your limits. It does not obligate you to sacrifice the rest of your life for your job, none of that.

There might be kind of manipulative things that some employers say, whether they mean to be manipulative or not of “we’re family,” but you’re not. You’re not family. I think we all — I at least get the heebie-jeebies when I hear that. It’s like a red flag goes up because, to me, that implies you’re trying to blur this relationship from a business one to a family one, and I go above and beyond for my family. But that’s different than the relationship that we have. And it’s really important to realize that this is business.

They can assign and change your job responsibilities, descriptions, all of that when it works for them. So you can also ask for changes when it works for you in that work relationship. It doesn’t mean you’re always gonna get them, but just asking alone does not mean you are disloyal. You can ask for more help. You can ask for less work. You can ask for more flexible work or more flexible hours, I should say. You can ask for remote work, whatever it might be. Again, we might not get it, but I just think it’s so important to realize that asking in the right way with kindness, with integrity, but with confidence of what you want does not make you disloyal or too demanding. It’s business.

Loyalty Boundaries – 6:17

I know I’ve kind of said this five thousand times, but I think it’s so important to realize we women tend to be loyal and kind of pride ourselves on that, which I don’t think is a bad thing. But it does become harmful to ourselves when we stay in a job longer than we should or we keep our mouths shut when the workload becomes unreasonable out of that overblown sense of loyalty.

I just want to be really clear here. I do not demonize business or executive or anything like that. My dad was a CEO. I saw how hard he worked. I saw how difficult some decisions he had to make were for him. I have a lot of empathy for management and for any sort of business leader in what they are doing. But I also really want to clarify that they will make — at the end of the day, even if it really is hard for them to do it, they will often make the right business decision because that is their job. I don’t mean that in a cynical way because, again, I have a lot of respect for people in those positions making those hard calls. It doesn’t mean everybody’s good at it, but the job itself I think is very difficult.

So I don’t mean it cynically. But I hope it’s freeing in a way because that’s what I really want you to hear is just as they can make decisions for them that make business sense, I should be empowered to make decisions for myself when it makes sense for me from a business and a personal standpoint, and you can do that with integrity. You can do that with kindness. But you still need to do it for yourself because, at the end of the day, these positions, these relationships are transactional. They are money for work product and support, but that is really it. They can let you go when they want. And so, you need to be able to make the calls that are right for you when it works for you.

I do know people who have been incredibly burned by entities despite years and years of support. And I say that not to, again, be cynical. That’s not my goal here, but it’s a reminder that you can work for a company for more than ten years, and they can handle things very poorly or not even poorly but just let you go, like lay you off if the economic tides turn and they just have to lay you off. That happens, and it doesn’t make it any easier for me to talk about it in this way. But what I really want everybody to hear is know that they could do that, and so, don’t feel guilt for standing up for yourself when you need to stand up for yourself from a business case.

That can be creative. That can look a lot of different ways. It can be asking for more money. It can be asking for a bigger bonus. It can be asking for flexibility. It could be asking for more support. It could be drawing the line on how many roles you’re willing to play. This relates to me to — I really think of it as if you can’t solve a company’s problems, then it’s not your job to bridge the gap. So if you can’t — if they’re understaffed and you don’t have the authority to go out and hire more people, then you shouldn’t necessarily be the one to take on the three other roles that aren’t filled right now. I feel really strongly in that. I know that can be a little idealistic of me to say, but I really believe in that. If you can’t solve the problem, why are you the one bridging the gap?

Team Player – 9:35

I’m going a little bit off on tangents here, but it relates a little bit also to, to me, a manipulated sense of — I know I mentioned “we’re family” — a little bit of a manipulated sense of being a team player. This relates to that, “I’m gonna go above and beyond because of loyalty. I’m gonna stick around longer because of the loyalty and also because I ‘want to be seen as a team player,’” and I am someone who played team sports growing up. I love the team dynamic. I love sports, but again, I feel like there’s almost a manipulation of that term that’s gone on in American culture that’s really not fair to the employee in the relationship.

And so, on that note, I’ll just point out that being a team player means taking on your fair share of the fair share, and if you push back that your fair share of an unfair share is unrealistic, as you should, that does not mean you’re not a team player. It just means you know your limits and you know your team limits. It is a workload issue, and it has nothing to do with whether you’re a team player. A great team player can say no because they are serving the team well by knowing their limits and their capacity constraints.

Similarly, and I know I’m kind of going off and merging some issues here, I also believe that great team players can still demand great leadership. So great leaders, in my opinion, encourage realistic workloads and protect you from unrealistic demands, or at least work with you to make sure that the demands on your time are more realistic. And if your leadership is not doing that, then you do get to push back to protect yourself and your team, which actually is what makes you a great team player.

And so, I just want to leave you today with these thoughts around really stepping into having confidence around standing up for yourself and not letting feelings of loyalty or being a team player interfere with you having the clarity around what is best for you and doing what is best for you, again, with integrity and with kindness but still going what’s best for you. Because, at the end of the day, it is business, and I don’t mean that in a cynical sense but I do mean it in a freeing one, and I hope that you can step into that for yourself as well.

Feel free to send this to a friend who could use it as well, and I will catch you in the next episode. Thanks for being here!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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