Setting the right limits is important to avoid time drains and inappropriate dependencies.

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Q: People keep coming to me to help them solve their problems. Usually it’s work-related, but sometimes about personal concerns. I’m flattered, but feel a bit burned out by it and it takes up lots of time. How can I handle this?

A: Setting the right limits is important to avoid time drains and inappropriate dependencies.

The inner game

Take a step back: Why do you think people come to you? On the work side, do you have a particular expertise that is broadly useful? Do you encourage “repeat business”? Or are you a pushover in terms of people offloading their issues to you?

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Next, consider what level of advisory role would actually be appropriate. If you manage people, problem solving is within your job description. If a friend is coming to you, that implies certain boundaries that may be more extensive. Another way to say this is, “How much should you — and do you want to — help others?”

It’s important to understand what you get out of being asked, too. Some people get an ego boost from riding in on a white horse. While this may be overstated in your case, if you’ve got some of the savior syndrome going, you may be fostering dependence among your co-workers.

Finally, consider other resources that might be available when you start cutting the cord with folks. It’ll be easier for you and them if you can offer suggestions on ways for them to solve their own problems or get help from someone else.

The outer game

To extricate yourself from this situation, expect people to take responsibility for solving their own problems. This may require expanding your coaching skills so that people define their own issues, identify their own options, think through barriers and move forward. These skills will serve you well even on topics where you want to stay more involved. Also, the empowerment that comes through this type of approach is much more helpful to the other party, compared to being spoon-fed solutions.

You may also need to learn to say “no” more often. Think about situations where you wish you hadn’t gotten involved, and figure out how to spot them in the future. Then practice alternatives to letting someone take your time. It all comes down to being clear — you don’t have time, you don’t have the expertise, you’re not comfortable discussing that at work. Whatever the reason, deliver it in a kind and direct way.

Now, if this is feeding your ego, you’re part of the problem. In that case, find other sources of self-esteem so that you don’t continue to be everyone’s problem solver.

Regardless of the root causes, it may be hard to break the habit. Be patient with yourself, and with others, because they’ve got habits, too. You could be straightforward about it, that you’ve seen this pattern and it’s been taking over your time. And, while you like helping people, you need to start setting limits. This may help you enlist others as allies, rather than confusing them because you’ve suddenly changed the rules.

The last word

Help people help themselves, and get out of the dependency trap! You’ll have more time and healthier relationships.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at liz@deliverchange.com.