Kirsten really admires Annabelle, she sets boundaries with her colleagues and even her boss and no one questions it. For example everyone knows that Annabelle leaves the office at five sharp on Friday, no exceptions, and if you want anything done you had better organize it with her with plenty of time to complete or you will have to wait for the following week. At the same time Kirsten is confused, Annabelle’s work is actually no better than her own, but she feels sure that if she behaved in his way her job would be in question. What is it that Annabelle is doing differently that leads everyone to respect her so much?

Setting boundaries is the single most common issue my clients deal with in their personal and professional lives.  Why do some people find boundaries so difficult to put in place?  And what can you do if a lack of boundaries is standing between you and the career success you desire?

Whether you’re working in the corporate world or running your own business, developing and continually exercising strong boundaries is essential to your success.  Boundaries are the environment within which you operate – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Think of a boundary like a vase. The vase is holding an exquisite bouquet of flowers – these represent your mind, body and spirit.  If the vase were to break, the flowers would be scattered, the water keeping them alive would flow over the table and on to the floor and very soon the precious blooms would wither. The same thing happens when you don’t have boundaries.  You feel overwhelmed, out of control, and scattered.  And, still worse, you make yourself vulnerable to being controlled and manipulated by others because you’re afraid to stand up for your values. We need boundaries, “the vase,” in order to blossom, in fact, quite simply, to survive.

Why are Boundaries So Difficult to Set?

There are several reasons why people find boundary setting challenging:

  1. They don’t like confrontation.
  2. They’re socialized to be nice and setting boundaries does not seem like “nice” behavior.
  3. They’re afraid people won’t like them.

Women seem to experience more difficulty setting boundaries than men do.  We’re socialized in a way which makes it seem like we’re “bad” if we are too assertive.  My clients often comment that they’re afraid that if they say “no” or speak out, that their colleagues will not like them, or even heaven forbid that they will become the office B**** that everyone loves to hate.

Life is filled with confrontation of one sort or another. We must all learn to deal with it.  No one will agree with you 100% of the time.  The opposite is also true.  And, others will not always treat you with respect, no matter how much you may deserve it. Confrontation is where problems are aired and new lines are set. When you look at it from this perspective confrontation actually plays an important part in our growth. It is HOW you confront people that is key.

Being nice and having boundaries are not mutually exclusive. Setting boundaries does not mean that you’re bad or wrong. Instead, it means you value and respect yourself and your time and you expect others to do the same. So to begin, you need to define what is acceptable in terms of how others will treat you. Here are seven tips to help you get started.

Build Better Boundaries:  7 Success Tips

1.  Model success.  Think about someone you really admire.  I’m sure he or she has strong boundaries. While you might sometimes find it somewhat annoying, that’s probably the single most important reason you respect them as you do. How do they manage their boundaries? Observe their behavior – then try modeling it.

2.  Think first, act later.  What’s important to you? How do you want others to treat you? Spend some quiet time thinking things through before you decide to let others know how you feel. This is a much better approach than suddenly deciding in the middle of a heated argument, that you’re “just not going to take it anymore”, often an explosive and very expensive mistake. Don’t risk damaging your reputation, career, business, or personal relationships by acting on impulse.

3.  Teach others how to treat you.  Every day, you’re training people how you want them to treat you, whether you know it or not. By not speaking up, by not informing people about how you wish to be treated, you are confirming that this behavior is completely acceptable in your world.

4.  Management by following up.  This strategy is especially important if you’re working with others to whom you’ve delegated tasks. Have a project plan, write down the deliverable, by whom and when they were committed to, and their expected completion dates. Discuss and agree upon follow-up dates.

Follow-up at these pre-agreed times by phone or in person to make sure that others are working towards completing things according to plan. Focused follow-up reminds reports of your expectations, but at the same time they feel supported rather than micromanaged as they agreed to the terms at the beginning of the project. Be sure however not to follow-up outside of these times, respect their time and ability too, or this will be perceived as micromanaging.

5.  Say “No” and explain why.  When you say “no” to someone, offer a reason.  “No,” in and of itself, can come across as harsh and abrupt. Lighten up your communication by extending the conversation with some details. “No, I’m so sorry, but I have a lot of commitments right now and taking on this project – would be too much at this time.” If it’s your boss, be open to re-negotiating other project deadlines in order to be able to respond to their request. No one expects you to achieve the impossible, even though it may feel like it sometimes, but if your manager does not know exactly what you have on your plate this week, he/or she can not be blamed for trying to overload your work schedule.

6.  Say, “Yes, but …”.  When faced with the inevitable last minute request, typically delivered by those who live in chaos and overwhelm, make sure you’re even stronger with your boundaries.  If you can handle the task, say “yes” – but with the provision, for example, that you’ll do it when and only when you’ve completed your current projects. If you do not set strong boundaries with these people, they will create your biggest headaches.

7.  Under-promise and over-deliver.  When you’re asked to do something, agree on a completion time that is a little later than you expect to complete, even if this means negotiating to move something else to a later date. This way, if something does come up you’ll still be able to deliver on time. And, if everything proceeds as planned, then you’ll finish early and they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Setting boundaries and setting expectations in the minds of others go hand-in-hand.

Boundaries and Your Success

In summary, boundaries are critically important to your success in life, both personally and professionally. They define who you are and who you are not.  They empower you to value and respect yourself. And, when you do, others will as well. It all starts with you.  Take on the challenge – I guarantee you that the rewards will be well worth it.