There are few things in life that are mandatory. Setting boundaries is one of them.
I recently brought in a branding expert to advise me on updating our company brand, from A to Z. She’d helped me with my book, Impact!, and I was looking forward to her clarity, perspective and expertise.
After one of our calls I realized that I was confused on a specific area we had reviewed together. Her boundaries for her work, and our agreement, precluded me from reaching out in between our four scheduled calls. It’s right there, in black and white. No ambiguity. No loopholes. No exceptions.
What to do? I couldn’t move forward with my website until I had her input, and our next call was two weeks away.
I sent an email. I prefaced my request by telling her that I was keenly aware that this was outside the parameters of our agreement, and explained why I was breaching her clear boundaries. I included permission to refuse; I left an open space for her to answer my question and for her to refuse to. Either way, I was good.
She responded quickly with two things: 1. The solution to my problem, and 2. Her appreciation for my respect for her boundaries. She even suggested I write an article about it. This is that.
Boundaries, and your respect for other’s boundaries will not always be this clear.
I've spent many years honing the art and science of boundary setting and, I confess, I will likely be working on this for the rest of my life. Like many of you, I did not grow up in a family with clear boundaries; we were codependent, enmeshed and complicit in all matters of integrity, and lack thereof. That being a good day.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries define what is okay with you and what is not: What you want and what you don’t.
It keeps some things out (violence, dis-respect, harassment,) and keeps some things in (respect, tolerance, efficiency). Boundaries are limits between people in relation to someone or something. They are guidelines on how you expect others to treat you, and they define what others can do around you, to you, or with you.
Boundaries can be mental, spiritual, emotional or physical, etc; therefore they are both tangible and intangible.
Your boundaries are unique to you.
Do not compare your boundaries to anyone else. What a healthy boundary is for you may not be for anyone you know. It doesn’t matter. Your boundaries reflect your feelings about yourself- not their feelings about you.
What matters is only that you set them, keep them and respect others the right to do the same.
Why are boundaries important?
Boundaries have two primary functions:
Increase your sense of control.
Decrease your stress.
Boundaries are the ultimate sign of self-respect. They don’t make you a control freak; they put you in charge of your career, life and success. Setting boundaries is harder than following them.
Good boundaries create an environment in which people can succeed. Bad boundaries create resistance to success, and are the product of control-freaks. With a bit of self-awareness, you’ll be able to distinguish the two.
When we set boundaries, we clarify our values.
They distinguish our responsibility / accountability—what’s mine, what’s yours. We figure out what we’re willing to tolerate, and what we’re unwilling to put up with; it takes the guesswork out of relationships.
The hard part? Having good, solid, boundaries that you maintain without apologizing for them.
Just because you’re a senior executive doesn’t mean you won’t have issues with setting boundaries, so you need to put that down. I work with my clients on their boundaries every day of the week. Regardless of whether you’re entry level or have earned senior status, you’re going to find this exercise useful.
When determining a boundary, place it in one of three buckets:
I don’t care
The rest will clarify itself.
While many people think of boundaries as limiting, I’d like to offer you a different perspective.
When healthy boundaries are put in place, and respected in any relationship, you will experience freedom, power and a sense of personal self-expression unavailable in any other context. In other words, everyone knows the rules in advance, and they will make their own choice as to whether to abide or not. It’s not on you.
Where should we set boundaries?
Everywhere. Below are just a few examples.
Do not contact me after hours unless it’s a true emergency. If you question whether it’s a true emergency, then it isn’t.
Show up for our meetings on time, prepared and ready to make decisions.
When my door is closed, do not disturb me. Period.
If you need me, I expect you to let me know by scheduling time with me.
If you wonder if something is ethical it’s not, so don’t do it.
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
Don’t ask me to do anything that will compromise my values and my value to this company.
Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want me to know about.
Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.
Have my back as I have yours.
If I act stupid, let me know.
If you make a mistake, own it, and let’s move on.
How do we know when our boundaries have been violated?
Although you may struggle defining your boundaries to yourself and with others, you’ll discover it is easy to detect when your values are violated. You will feel anger, resentment, and guilt (or some combination, thereof). If you feel disrespected, annoyed or plain exhausted, it is likely that you’ve confined your boundaries to lip service.
Why don’t we set or maintain our boundaries?
We don’t like to say “no”
We don’t want to be direct.
We don’t like letting others down.
The fear of what others will think.
We want to avoid conflict.
We would need to clarify our values, and that’s a lot of work.
We don’t want to be accountable for our behavior, so we don’t make others accountable either.
We would need to give ourselves permission to say “no”. And “yes”.
We have a fear of being seen as selfish.
I other words, we think that if we don’t set boundaries,
people will like us more or, at the very least, dislike us less.
Neither of these is true.
Not long ago I met with one of my clients at a Fortune 50 company. She promised to return to her office and investigate something we’d been discussing. She promised to get back to me before the end of the day. I didn’t hear from her which, in our coaching agreement, is an unequivocal “NO NO”. When we caught up with one another the following day, she told me that when she’d returned to her office, there was a line of people waiting to discuss various issues that required her input. This client ‘forgot’ our agreement and went straight to work on ironing our some wrinkles.
In our conversation, she admitted that it had never occurred to her to tell her direct reports, “Glad you stopped by, but I have a deadline on a project. If you come back in thirty minutes, I’ll give you all the help you need." This scenario would have honored her agreement to both coaching and her direct reports.
There is a 100% guarantee that if you set boundaries, they’ll be violated.
It’s human nature, and it’s only problematic if you fail to deal with it.
For those parents reading this, you know exactly what I mean. Your children, from the earliest age, know when you say, “NO” and you mean it, and when you say, “NO” and there’s latitude. It’s your in voice and your body language. Ditto for employees, your manager, your relatives and your significant others.
In conclusion- there's a certain beauty to setting clear boundaries with the expectation that they will respect all involved. Equally, there's a fair amount of bluster in most boundaries that are set. How often have you set a boundary 'hoping' it will be honored, and expecting it won't be? How often have you breached your own boundaries because you wanted to look like "the good guy" who will do anything for the team?
Please share with us.... what was the price you paid? In hindsight, what could you have done differently?
Nancy D. Solomon, MA Psych, CEO and Founder of The Leadership Incubator, is on a mission to help Fortune 1000 companies turn individual, team, and organizational potential into measurable performance.
Known as The Impact Expert, she is a main stage speaker, expert trainer and veteran coach who helps leaders solve key issues related to leadership development, employee engagement and advancing women.
Nancy has made a difference for such companies as Microsoft, Target, Acura, Westin, Nordstrom & ADP and with many passionate individuals.
Grow Authentic Leaders. Create Cohesive Teams. Develop Empowered Organizations. Schedule a 15 minute complimentary call with Nancy on our calendar here: https://calendly.com/nancydsolomon/introduction.