Setting boundaries is a popular topic and practice in mental health and wellness circles. And with good reason, because clear boundaries can help us protect and preserve our energy for what’s most important to us personally and professionally. In the workplace, when people set, communicate and respect boundaries, everyone benefits, including the business and its customers and culture.
Setting boundaries involves clarifying priorities — both at home and at work. For example, when we understand the most important aspect of our jobs, say pursuing new business leads, we’re better able to make decisions about our assignments, workload and time and ultimately focus on our highest-level activities. That might mean not taking on extra committee work while working on a big RFP or delegating less critical tasks during the period.
When we establish and communicate parameters around our mental and physical health, like taking an hour to get outside on our lunch break, our colleagues will try not to schedule meetings at that time. Understanding and respecting each other’s boundaries helps us work better together and strengthens team bonds. If we’re clear with coworkers that our children come first, we can be honest about attending the kindergarten play during the day and joyfully talk about it. In other words, we can be ourselves.
As a result, we’re more energetic and productive and less conflicted. Likewise, businesses need to establish boundaries to stay true to their missions and allocate their resources to their highest priorities. Here are some thoughts on “boundaries for business:”
Core values should click
When looking at new business opportunities and vetting vendors, be sure to consider each potential partner’s core values. They don’t have to be perfectly aligned with yours, but they should be pretty close and complementary. If they are, your working relationships will be stronger and you’ll naturally push each other forward.
Remember, core values are the principles that guide a company’s decisions and behaviors, like honesty and curiosity. They should be ingrained and embedded in every aspect of operations, and if they’re authentic, they won’t be compromised for any reason, especially not for convenience or financial gain. It might seem like a luxury to set that kind of boundary when you’re growing your business — and who isn’t? — but remaining true to your core values will save you heartache in the long run.
For example, at DS+CO, we’ve ended business relationships with five clients in the past 34 years because continuing to work with them would have meant betraying a core value at the time: respect. In each case, the clients were disrespectful to our team members. Doing business with them went against our commitment to treating people with respect, and allowing it to continue would have betrayed another one of our core values at the time: integrity.
Looking back, it seems gutsy and even a little crazy to walk away from millions of dollars of revenue but by setting that boundary, we reinforced our commitment to our core values, strengthened our culture of trust and built credibility with our team members and the community.
Happily, we haven’t gone through anything like that in years, and those situations are few and far between. Still, you might want to give thought to setting boundaries around your business relationships. At DS+CO, we decided early on that we wouldn’t partner with companies that sell tobacco or alcohol, and we won’t do political advertising, either. It just doesn’t mesh with our core values.
Flexibility is a two-way street
Over the past few years, employers have become increasingly flexible with when and where people work. That’s great on so many levels, and it’s become a part of DS+CO’s DNA. I wholeheartedly encourage business leaders to allow as much flexibility as possible, especially for team members to be present for loved ones and to take care of personal health and wellbeing. But it works both ways.
That is, our team members need to be flexible, too. For example, if they set a boundary of stopping work in time to get their children off the school bus every day, I applaud that, truly. At the same time, if their team is in the midst of an important client project with an imminent deadline, the business might set a boundary that the work needs to get done on time — even if means logging back on at night or over the weekend on rare occasion.
Fortunately, we’ve never had a team member take advantage of the flexibility they’ve been given, but it’s a good idea to think about setting boundaries around flexibility and its limits to ensure client service and business operations are never compromised.
Be clear with customers
At the beginning of every project and client relationship, each party should communicate expectations and guidelines about price and timing, of course, but also about other boundaries. Things like when and how to communicate and how quickly to respond. For example, do you prefer video meetings with cameras on? Would they rather call than email? Are you open to talking at night or on the weekend?
When you deliver work for a client to review, let them know up front when you need them to respond and what could happen if they don’t get back to you in time. Taking a proactive approach helps you set and stick to realistic deadlines and avoids having to squeeze your team or apologize for missing a date.
If a customer asks for extra work after you’ve agreed to a project’s parameters — aka “scope creep” — be clear if it’s too much and what it will take to accommodate the request. If you need more time or it will add to the cost, let them know. If you don’t have the capacity or it compromises your values, it’s OK to say no.
Finally, in the same way we encourage our team members to be realistic about their workloads, as businesses we need to set boundaries around the work we take on so we don’t overcommit. When it doubt, it might be better to take on less work instead of more. Seriously. Unless you have a clear plan for how you’ll be able to provide your customer with your highest level of service and quality, it’s better to say no than to risk burning out your team or delivering sub-par work.
In this way, businesses are like people. We perform best when we show up 100%, and boundaries help us do that. Just like we encourage our team members to take care of themselves and their mental health, we need to take care of our companies so we can serve our customers with positive energy and complete focus. By establishing and communicating clear guardrails, we manage expectations, build trust and strengthen partnerships.
Lauren Dixon is board chair of Dixon Schwabl + Co., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a Best Place to Work.