FounderFuel: Why you need to develop healthy boundaries as a founder

You cannot ignore your boundaries without paying a price.

This is true for all of us, but for founders, the price is often overlooked for the perceived prize! As a founder, there’s a tendency to live by the idea of ‘going beyond’, the idea of boundaries then, can feel like an unwelcome restriction – like tying a racehorse up at a children’s birthday party and asking it to placidly walk up and down the same stretch of grass for hours on end…it’s not what you were made for! 

The idea of restricting anything that is currently in a growth or startup stage (including yourself of course) seems counter intuitive. BUT…the price of ignoring boundaries is still there to be paid.

  • Overstep your own boundaries and you end up burned out.
  • Overstep others’ boundaries in your team and you create conflict, frustration and ultimately lose people.

By contrast, if we consider and apply boundaries effectively, we are de-risking your investment of time and energy, building strong relationships, and making the investment all more profitable overall. 

So, what are boundaries and why are they important?

I love the definition given by Dr David Gruder which is: 

A boundary is any limit I need to honour so I can love or work without resentment and with integrity.

We often think of limits as the point at which you have been pushed too far, but boundaries are far more than just recognising when you are ‘at your limit’ as in – about to tip over into overwhelm, burnout, distress or emotional instability. They are the conscious, deliberate and strategic limits that you put in place to maintain and protect your stability and balance before it tips over into a downward spiral! 

As founders, limits are often tested and pushed because that’s part of how we innovate. There’s also the additional drive towards testing limits that comes from really enjoying the process of working, creating, innovating, growing and expanding. It can be a wrench to have to switch off at times! 

Getting strategic about your boundaries though, has numerous competitive advantages and those who apply them often find they are better set up for long term success than those with the ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead’ type mentality – who can often find that all that hard work and hard won success feels hollow and unsatisfying – which is not what we want after all that graft! 

Setting some boundaries is in itself a great exercise in reflection. It’s an opportunity to just take stock for a moment and decide on whether things are working for you and whether your actions are aligned with your values. 

Knowing your values is the starting point – if you don’t know what’s important to you it’s difficult to know what boundaries to set. Values free you to move forwards into creating strong boundaries that maintain freedom and growth. So, first things first, figure out your value system and if you aren’t sure how to do that effectively you can ask about my Value Recognition tool that I developed. 

Once you know your values, your boundaries are a natural follow on from this. Since your values tell you what you care about, your boundaries are the limits you enforce to ensure you don’t compromise on the integrity that comes from living within your value system. 

Key points to consider:
  • Boundaries create freedom because they create a safe base we can trust. They are working guidelines that help us achieve a specific outcome and live within our values. 
  • Boundaries are there to help you optimise your time and energy resources and strategically retain autonomy over your responsibilities and your inner stability. It’s how you know when to say no to something/someone else, so that you can say ‘yes’ to yourself. 
  • Being responsible and reliable + emotional stability = ingredients needed to support performance. Boundaries give you a framework for how to work within this optimal state. 
  • Boundaries are required to be clear to you and clearly communicated to others, but not so rigid that they create a barrier to connection or collaboration, or indeed growth! 

We recently did a Scaleup Session on the common boundary challenges founders encounter and how to approach it. FounderCircle members can login to the Hub and access the recording here.

What do healthy boundaries look like?

Barriers are created from a sense of fear, boundaries are created from a need for freedom.

Boundaries enable you to manage your time and energy well – we have a finite amount of both time and energy, especially as founders. In truth, we are often making decisions about who we will let down in order that we don’t let down another – it is a constant loyalty vs. betrayal cycle. That’s why basing boundaries on your values is important, as it means your decision making around where best to spend your time and energy is aligned and, well, happy!

Healthy boundaries are what we are aiming for, they look like this: 
  • You value your own opinions
  • You don’t compromise values for others
  • You share personal information in an appropriate way (does not over or under share)
  • You know personal wants and needs, and can communicate them
  • You are accepting when others say “no”

Most of us have differences in how we create and uphold boundaries in different areas of our lives so it’s helpful to look at where most of your challenges with boundaries arise. 

Rigid vs. porous boundaries – what is the difference and why does it matter? 

Both rigid and porous boundaries are created from fear. 

Rigid boundaries involve a shutting out of the world rather than being discerning about what you do and don’t spend your time and energy on and allowing that to remain flexible depending on the need. 

Porous boundaries are often created from those with  people-pleasing tendencies and involve letting your own time and energy be used up by the needs of others, leaving you depleted. 

How to get the balance right: 

  • Decide on the non-negotiables
  • Track what is needed for optimal resourcing of time and energy
  • Assess emotional stability as this is how you know when you’ve got the balance optimised

How to understand and respect others boundaries

Other people’s boundaries are about them, not you!

It’s easy for us to get offended or frustrated sometimes when others set their boundaries (perhaps because it is a restriction to you!) but… they are just giving you vital data about who they are and what is right for them and what is not – therefore it pays for you to ask plenty of questions and to want to respect the boundaries of others so you can both understand whether they are right for this role or this company (… this relationship/partnership/team etc too). 

So to understand others’ boundaries, you are really just asking them to let you know what works for them and what doesn’t – this will be according to their value system. If you don’t understand or respect their boundaries they are not going to be able to optimise their time and energy, and their performance will dip along with their motivation.

Ask: How can we optimise your time and energy? Their energy includes things like their enthusiasm, motivation and passion. Time and energy interact with one another closely – so you might give them more time for something but this hasn’t improved their energy. Or they may have loads of energy available but not enough time – define the problem, is it a time one or an energy one. It’s worth noting that most problems are energy problems, not time ones. 

Ultimately, seek to understand others’ boundaries and you’ll have a more productive and effective relationship.

Follow the three simple steps to boundary setting and you won’t go far wrong:

  1. Define your core values and use these as a measure for your boundaries
  2. Communicate clearly when you need to put a boundary in place – first with yourself by looking at what you want and why, and then with others.
  3. Practice. Start by living up to your own values by putting boundaries in place for yourself and then practice living up to these values with others.

Remember: Boundaries create freedom because they create a safe base everyone can trust. When you know what your boundaries are, everyone is happier.

Clearly communicate with total honesty what your boundaries are and don’t be afraid to restate these regularly.

  • What can others expect from you? 
  • What do you expect of them?
  • Are you both happy with this? 
  • What will you do if you are NOT happy with this? 

These ingredients make a happier more productive team too.

FounderCircle members can catch the recording of the full Scaleup Session where we really dive into healthy boundaries as a founder and startup leader here.



Other relevant articles linked to this topic:

Boost performance with regular positive feedback

Co-founder conflict resolution

A simple framework for effective feedback with your team

Written by Nova Cobban, founder-coach & psychotherapist at weare3Sixty

Founder coach | Trainer  |  Psychotherapist | Passionate about fuelling high performing leaders to achieve their full potential.

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