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Establishing Authority Through Boundaries

Brian Smith

 
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Founders, entrepreneurs, and high performers naturally resist boundaries. We resist them because it’s our nature to challenge obstacles - and we often make the mistake of treating boundaries as obstacles rather than tools. One of the last things we consider is creating boundaries for ourselves. This is entirely understandable, but a poor response to the challenges we’re facing.

Creating boundaries is one of the most effective interventions my clients consistently employ. The establishment of clear boundaries can create a dramatic and swift change in nearly any area of your life.

How do boundaries create authority?

Boundaries give us a type of “rules of engagement.” For example, inside your home you can make and enforce any rules you want, like asking everyone who enters to remove their shoes. However, if you walk to the local park and demand that everyone remove their shoes, you may end up in an asylum. Why? Your authority to make rules ends at the walls of your home. Outside of your home, your authority quickly diminishes. It’s the boundaries (walls) that create authority.

The most common place where I see lack of boundaries creating problems for entrepreneurs is their own job description. Most entrepreneurs have a job description for everyone but themselves. Everyone but the entrepreneur knows exactly what they have to do in a given day and they have the de facto ability to say “no” to any task that falls outside of their job description. The entrepreneur without a job description is the only one left without the authority to say “no.” These entrepreneurs are left picking up all of the little tasks that fall through the cracks. Whether it’s running payroll, answering the phone when the receptionist is on break, or taking out the trash, the entrepreneur without a job description becomes “human duct tape,” picking up odd jobs to hold the company together. I’ve heard myriad excuses from founders in an attempt to validate their decision to not write a job description or to pick up these odd jobs, but they are all simply excuses. This structure benefits no one.

Writing a job description for the entrepreneur empowers the entrepreneur to say “no” to these tasks and, importantly, accurately assess what tasks are not currently being covered by another person on their team. It’s the entrepreneur’s job to build an organization that solves problems - not to act as human duct tape and solve the problems herself. An accurate job description creates boundaries for you so that you can stay focused on your mission (building an organization) and hand off all tasks that don’t directly support that mission.

Boundaries that serve a purpose

Your only limits in creating boundaries is your creativity and your mindset. Begin by considering what type of authority will best serve you, then work to create boundaries that support the establishment of that type of authority. Here are a few examples my clients and I have effectively used:

Meetings:

Meetings often fail to be productive or, worse, turn into conflicts when those present don’t have clearly defined roles and reasons for their presence at a meeting. Ensure that everyone who shows up to a meeting has a reason to be there. Every person in the meeting should be responsible for a specific business function, process, or objective. No one is there to observe. Empowering everyone to be responsible for a specific area within the business ensures that all important business functions are being considered. It also ensures that conflicts are much easier to handle. Each person at the meeting is responsible for advocating for the particular position that they are there to represent. If the person responsible for budget has a strong opinion about a marketing effort, it’s their responsibility to argue their point from the perspective of budget and what impact the marketing effort will have on the budget they oversee.

Relationships:

There’s no universally accepted definition of what a mother, father, husband, or wife is. We all have developed those understandings over the course of our lives. The problem is, each of us has our own definition of these roles. Because of varying definitions, relationships often run into conflicts. A husband expects his partner to act in a certain way, in accordance with his understanding of how a wife “should” act. When his wife acts counter to this expectation, he feels hurt or upset, creating conflict within the relationship. To avoid these conflicts, partners can lay out their expectations for both their partners and themselves, creating a sort of “job description” for each other. This ensures that both partners are in agreement with respect to what is expected from them and what to expect from their partner.

Schedules:

Entrepreneurs are often overwhelmed by the demands of their work. They lose themselves in their work, neglecting their personal lives. I often speak to entrepreneurs who tell me that they don’t have a personal life and spend 12+ hours per day in their offices, yet they still don’t feel productive. I find these entrepreneurs have difficulty prioritizing their projects and commitments because they say “yes” far too easily. Unsurprisingly, these are the entrepreneurs who tend to be the most stressed.

The simplest and most effective intervention I’ve found for these entrepreneurs is to have them make regular personal commitments. These take the form of committing to meeting friends after work, signing up for exercise classes, joining a book club, or some combination of these. I call these simple and effective commitments “lynchpin interventions.” Simply having a commitment on their schedule that takes them out of the office forces them to more accurately assess their available time and commitments. Knowing that they’ve committed to an activity (and to themselves), gives them these entrepreneurs the authority to say “no” to low priority items and forces them to be more critical of how they spend their time at work.


I constantly work on authority and boundaries with my clients. Are you curious to learn more about how boundaries can create clarity and authority in your life? Contact me and let’s have a discussion about how these approaches can change your life.

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