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One of the hardest parts about being an entrepreneur or a small business owner is setting boundaries. On one hand, fulfilling client requests and ensuring a positive experience establishes grounds for future business as well as potential referrals, but on the other hand, muddy boundaries can lead to miscommunication and a pattern of overextending yourself.
If you’re struggling to set and maintain professional boundaries at work, here are five tips and mindset shifts that you need to make to set better boundaries with your clients or customers, especially if you are a solopreneur or a small business owner.
If you’re new to working for yourself, it might take you a while to even begin to recognize your boundaries. When you’re first starting out, there’s just so much to learn—whether it’s the objective logistics of running your business like invoicing and scheduling client calls or the subjective skills like being able to present yourself with authority, there’s a lot that’s happening all at once.
One of the things that you learn as an entrepreneur/small business owner is where those professional boundaries lie. The more experience you have, the more clear those hard boundaries become. So, as you’re working, pay close attention to your own feelings and needs as it relates to business. Note if (and why) a specific request makes you uncomfortable and take a mental note of any positive encounters as well. Once you’ve identified those boundaries, then you can convey them clearly to your clients and employees.
Once you identify your professional boundaries, put clear structures in place to enforce them and communicate them to your clients upfront.
For example, If you’re an entrepreneur with the bad habit of answering emails when you’re supposed to already be off from work, put structures in place so that you don’t. Whether that’s setting an auto-responder or letting your clients know in advance, give yourself permission to leave work at work.
One of the most helpful things that you can do when starting off a professional relationship is to establish expectations. Identify your role in the relationship and clearly state to your client what they can expect when working with you. Outline both your needs and their needs from the getgo and this will help safeguard against any future miscommunication.
Sometimes, the hardest part about establishing boundaries is the mindset behind it all. We think that putting boundaries in place will hinder our performance or will negatively reflect how genuine we are about our work, but this simply isn’t the case. You can have clear boundaries AND still do great work.
Here are two mindset shifts that you should employ when setting professional boundaries:
1. You can be a good person without being a doormat
When boundaries are broken, speak up for yourself and reestablish them to whoever you’re working with. This will not only reaffirm to yourself that you (and your boundaries) deserve to be respected but will also help establish a sustainable, long-term relationship with your client. When doing this, always address your client’s concerns first and then restate and reestablish those boundaries in that context.
2. You cannot control how others react; you can only control yourself
When you set professional boundaries, it’s impossible to control how those around you respond. Instead of saying yes out of fear, lean heavily into terms and conditions that you’ve already established at the beginning of the relationship. Those who see value in your work will respect your boundaries and those that were never in alignment will leave.
While meeting with clients and getting to know them on a personal level can do wonders for establishing trust in the business relationship, it’s important to keep those relationships professional. If the boundaries on personal connection begin to blur, then it’s easier for the professional boundaries to fall by the wayside as well. Keep a professional relationship positive and cordial; don’t complain about your other clients or lean too heavily into identity politics (unless that’s at the core of what you do).
It’s going to happen. Boundaries are not an overnight process and people with messy boundaries are going to push your boundaries. Use these experiences as opportunities to instruct your coworkers and clients on how you best communicate and what is appropriate when it comes to disruption. If your boundaries are repeatedly disregarded, however, it might be time to drop a client or switch your workplace.
What are some of your biggest challenges when it comes to setting boundaries? We’d love to hear about your experiences!