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How to Set Boundaries in Business

There's lots of resource material out there about the importance of boundaries in relationships with couples, families and other significant personal relationships.

However, we realized there are very few business programs on how to set effective boundaries in the workplace. Sure, there are trainings on diversity, workplace harassment and culture awareness, and these topics are about boundaries. However, these trainings are often addressing the legal side of the boundary issue. What they miss is the importance of stating one’s personal preferences in a myriad of business situations without having to resort to right and wrong, or legal routes.

We think boundaries are just as important in business, on teams and in workplace relationships as they are in maintaining and sustaining a successful marriage or keeping a family intact over time.

Let's give a few simple examples of business boundary related issues.

Sam works for a large national insurance company. His office is on the west coast. He's an important part of the national insurance company's online marketing department. His job is to ensure the print copy, provided by the business unit marketing departments, gets posted online smoothly. He's good at coding, creating and ensuring the marketing strategy goes digital.

Let's take a peek into his Monday morning. Sam has been in the office since 5 a.m. working to meet a critical deadline. Sam’s desktop is a large series of computer screens with scrolling images and text. Amidst the hum of his computer screens, he’s busy entering and reviewing data with a variety of mobile devices and a laptop linked up for maximum visual streaming and editing. Sam is deeply engaged in arranging, resizing and testing.

The phone rings.

He hits the speaker button on his phone without taking his eyes off his work, "What's up, Tom?" He knows it will be Tom because Tom's in the Chicago office, and he's the marketing director for this launch.

"I need to know if you'll have the digital pieces up and running by 3 p.m. today. I know it's not due until the end of day, but I’m very nervous about this release." This is Tom’s number one focus today.

Sam still has not looked away from his work, "I'm on it - been working since 5 a.m. It’s looking good.”

Tom seems calmer, "Okay, let me know if you need anything."

Sam disconnects and carries on with his work.

Five minutes later, phone rings.

Sam hits the speaker phone again. "Hello."

Tom speaks up, "Me again, I just want to double check that you got the latest changes and new images."

"Yes." After a brief pause to check, Sam confirms his data is from the latest update and clicks off the speaker phone.

Back to his computer, Sam manages to get in thirty-five minutes of focused time when Skype starts ringing on Sam's largest screen!

"Darn - who gave Tom access to Skype!" Sam yells out loud as though someone else was in the office this early!

It is Tom. And even though Sam does not accept the call, shortly there after, an onscreen message appears, I know you probably don't need me to tell you, but Larry needs to see everything before you go live. So glad Skype works. How about a quick chat to get time estimate for Larry.

Sam can't help but read it. He rolls his eyes. It's a good thing Tom is not in the office next door or Sam would kill him!

Can you see how an interchange like this once, or worse, over a series of projects, would lead to a potential breakdown in the working relationship between Sam and Tom? May be you can relate to one or the other, because frankly they are both beginning to get tight with each interaction.

Or, another example, straight from our own thrive! office.

CrisMarie has been working on the logistics for our three-day, in-person Be Brave retreat, November 11 -13, (Yes, any of you women reading this might want to take a look here, and she wants to run her ideas by me after her planning session with Rachel, our awesome marketing maven.

CrisMarie brimming with enthusiasm starts out, "Okay, so we have this great idea for a cooking event the first night so people can get to know each other. Then Saturday, we’ll have them out at the ranch with the horses and you to work on boundary solutions. They can also meet Bobbi, our local Horse Whisperer. Plus, we can get these beautiful vacation rentals, which are so elegant! We’ll have Kelly do a photo shoot with the gals and horses. Also, I have lined up a dinner at Wasabi, plus yoga each morning! I think we should cover all their lodging and meal costs except breakfast. What do you think?!"

I respond in my usually manner, "I am not sure I like a cooking class the first night. How about we do something a little more Montana-like. We can visit the hops ranch. Horses and hops, that would be cool!" Overall I am thrilled with the new plans, but just not a big cooking fan.

CrisMarie clearly tight and put off responds, "Really? You’re just going to criticize our ideas!" As I look up, I can see I have missed something very important.

I am about to explain my thinking when I fully realize that would not be a useful thing to do next!

Yes, this too is a boundary issue. CrisMarie and I have very different styles. In the Myers-Briggs (you folks remember that don’t you?) CrisMarie has a Feeling preference, F, and I have a Thinking preference, T. She likes to have the positive feedback spoken out loud, before getting into any analysis. I prefer to poke at ideas I like and may even forget to fully appreciate or acknowledge the great work she and Rachel have done!

No doubt, you may have formed an opinion already about whose right or wrong in this case!

However, at this point there isn't anything right or wrong about the action's taken! All of this is about preferences. Our individual preferences is where boundaries become very important.

First, what is a boundary?

A boundary is about you and your preferences. For it to be a boundary it needs to be explicitly communicated. And here's the real clincher - a boundary statement is not about changing the other person. It's not about what is right or wrong. It’s just about who you are and what matters and works best for you.

When our differences become problems that we cannot navigate, they often become about who's right and who's wrong, or worse - legal issues. Once that line is crossed or close, businesses make sure people know you just can't do this! Sexual harassment and even culture awareness and inclusivity fall on that line of right/wrong and have many correctness/rules and legal consequences that will result if not followed or considered. This is important in the workplace.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are much more about building and fostering healthy relationships through dialogue and engaging with each other through vulnerability and curiosity.

We think it's just as important if not more so. Frankly, it's our culture’s inability to have open, honest dialogue about our different styles and preferences that leads to legal measures to protect and ensure people are respected in the workplace.

Back to Sam & Tom

Let's look at what might have been a different path for Sam to take.

Sam's in the office working away. Phone rings.

Sam stops working. "Good morning Tom. I knew you would be calling, and I am all over this launch, in extra early to ensure things are good to go by 2 p.m. CDT!"

Notice in this response, Sam is giving Tom information he thinks Tom will want plus sharing that he plans to deliver early..

Likely this would settle Tom and that call would be quick. Tom may still call again.

"Me again. Ijust want to be sure you have the latest images."

This time Sam sets a boundary by stating his preferences to Tom.

"Tom, I know this is important and you like checking in. I have to say for me it interrupts my workflow, and I decided to come in super early to avoid distractions. I would prefer if I could have quiet uninterrupted time."

Here Sam is not saying Tom is the problem just sharing his own preferences and choices.

At this point Tom could engage in a dialogue if he wants something different.

"Look I get you like quiet time. I am someone who likes regular updates. Could you send me an hourly sign that everything is still on schedule? Would that work for you?"

The idea here is for both Tom and Sam to define what they each want and to engage in a dialogue that doesn't simply assume one way or the other is better.

Of course, this is a working example, and there may well be an even better alternative. The main point is boundaries are very important in business. Also, boundary-ing isn't about just getting what you want, it's about defining your preferences outloud and being interested and curious about the impact that might have on another teammate or co-worker.

Better to work on boundary-ing than have to go the legal route to resolve differences.

If you would like some coaching around boundaries or to learn more about how to create boundaries that stick and help your organization or team create more dialogue - give us a call!

Woman, (sorry guys) if you would like to get better at setting boundaries that stick both at work and at home, check out our program, Be BRAVE starting October 11th, and the option that includes the 3-day in-person retreat if you want some accelerated learning in person and in style!

Join us for our Free Training: How To Set Boundaries That Stick! on September 14th.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.


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