Boundaries: Drawing a Line in the Sand

Wendy Sage-Hayward
Wendy Sage-Hayward

How good are you at drawing lines in the sand? By lines, I mean boundaries. Boundaries are the rules or limits we expect of others in our family and in our business which specify what is or is not acceptable to us. Examples of boundaries I have seen recently in family enterprise include the following:

  • Declining to speak to someone when they are disrespectful. When a daughter starts swearing at her father in front of staff at the office, the father says: “Until you speak to me respectfully, I am not willing to engage in this conversation with you”. He then walks away.
  • Refusing to create an unnecessary position for a friend of a family member. The VP of HR refuses to create an unnecessary job for the friend of a family member regardless of the relentless pressure exerted by the family member (in G2). The VP of HR insists on waiting for a real job to open up. She will then allow the family friend to apply for the position but will not guarantee her a job unless she is qualified for it.
  • Holding out for an apology. A sister refuses to speak to her brother outside of work related issues until he provides a genuine apology for writing her a nasty email about what he perceives to be her controlling and overbearing attitude/behaviour.
  • Deciding not to enable an addiction. An uncle declines to give money to his nephew when he strongly suspects his nephew plans to use the money to buy drugs rather than pay his rent. The uncle decides to pay his nephew’s rent directly. In addition, the family members working in the business have recently decided not hire a family member who has an active addiction.
  • And…I am sure you can identify many more!

Firmly holding boundaries can be easy for some and not so easy for others. One reason it can be difficult is that often people have a powerful story or explanation about the situation that serves to rationalize why they should concede during a particular encounter with another family member. They convince themselves that it is not a big deal or that by giving in they will get a better result somehow.

Our stories shape our behaviour in very powerful ways. One of the biggest challenges for members in a family business is to become aware of their own story. Unfortunately, our stories are often completely transparent to us – in other words we do not see the story as a story over which we have choice – rather we see it as truth. For example, if the father in the first example (above) consistently allowed his daughter to talk to him in a rude and disrespectful way in front office staff, his story could sound something like this: “Well, she doesn’t really mean it. She is not feeling well today. She has been having a rough time lately. I need to be more understanding and patient and then she will be too. It is not really a big deal. Everyone swears once in a while”.

The first steps in designing clear boundaries is to ask yourself some key questions:

  • What do I want to say “no” to that I am allowing right now in our family business/family relationships?
  • Why don’t I say “no” to this behaviour now? Why do I give in?
  • By continuing to allow this situation to occur, what impact is it having on me and others in our family or business?
  • What is a more powerful story/explanation that could help me to hold this boundary more firmly?
  • What do I need to do next?

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