Boundaries: the Key to Constructive Conflict

The following post is adapted from an internal newsletter I wrote at my last company. Please only apply what makes sense for you and your context. Thanks for reading!

In my conflict classes I say (not without irony, I promise) that the “bird of constructive conflict” has two wings and a tail, and it needs all of these in order to be able to fly. One wing is empathy, which exists to a large extent in many contemporary organizations, in my experience. The other is healthy boundaries, which are practiced to a far lesser degree, and the tail is the win-win approach to resolution. I will explore the topic of work and team boundaries here, as it is one of the important tools for helping teams through the storming stage.

1. Set Clear, Consistent Team Boundaries. Rules, limits, and expectations are vital during the terrible twos and teenage years, both. They also help teams navigate conflict constructively; if boundaries have not been determined consciously in the formation stage, the need for them will emerge during storming in a less conscious, more unpleasant way through erupting conflicts.

A boundary is a way of defining and demarcating a limit of some kind. In work relationships, boundaries are visible in explicit agreements and communications about what is desired, acceptable, and unacceptable in interpersonal interactions and team behavior. I am referring here to team boundaries, rather than personal ones, though personal ones also benefit from the same basic approach, so keep that in mind.

How do boundaries work in teams? Boundaries help people know and understand how to behave with each other, and give security through definition. It is a way of establishing a container, the same as a line on a piece of paper can define a space that otherwise would have endless possibilities.

Involving team members in establishing working agreements is beneficial for many reasons, including that it generates buy-in and involvement across the team, builds relationships, and establishes a platform for shared accountability.

pretty clear boundaries

Even if boundaries are determined largely by someone else, people will feel secure as long as they know what they are. The real team-killer, something far, far worse than the de-motivation that can result from a boundary being determined without my input, is the hidden or changing boundary. (I.e. when I don’t know where the line is.) Not only does it breed psychological insecurity, it also sets people up to test boundaries more than they might normally, just as a way of finding out where the limits are. In other words, neglecting to set boundaries increases the amount of storming behaviors.

I’ll use a Platonic analogy to explain what I mean. Psychologically speaking people joining or forming teams are inside a lightless cave. After some time, they naturally start to grope around in the dark for the walls. The goal is to comprehend the shape of the cave and how much space they have in which to move around. A boundary-testing behavior, such as coming late to an important meeting, is a way of pushing lightly against a wall.

If I experience the solidity of something pushing back against me, such as a team member saying, “Holly, you came late to sprint planning meeting, what happened?” then I internalize the information that a wall really is there. This is a way of understanding the shape and amount of space I have to move around in. Once I know for sure that the boundary is there, not only as a sentence in a doc somewhere, but also as a psychological reality for me, I will move on from needing to test it. As a group, once the team has understood their perimeter, they proceed with the process of forming a resilient and ruddy team dynamic. They can move around with confidence inside the space they understand.

Whether the walls feel too close around me or too large and airy matters not as much as one might think. As long as the walls are there and are predictable enough, people will feel secure, begin to adjust themselves to the space, and move on psychologically from the need to test.

Boundaries help team members understand the space they are working in.

To improve this constructive conflict factor

Determine boundaries and make them explicit. Explicit role clarity, working agreements, and decision-making and delegation agreements are the foundation of making boundary reinforcement easier, more transparent, and more consistent.

2. Enforce team boundaries consistently. Imagine you’re an evil genius Team Lead intent on destroying your team’s chance of achieving high performance. A strong team power-destroying tactic would be to introduce intermittent reinforcement. In the cave analogy, this means moving the boundary walls around, placing them sometimes close, sometimes very far away. Make some walls soft and velvety and spike others with broken glass. Ideally you make things seem as though there might be a pattern, when actually there is no discernible pattern or beatable system.

The way to do this with actual team boundaries would be to sometimes react to very minor infractions “2 minutes late to stand up is not ok!” while ignoring larger and more serious problems, such as failing to produce the quality required. You could also harshly punish things that don’t matter, and ignore what matters the most. You could say that there is a rule, and then never enforce it, or you could enforce a boundary that no one knew was there.

In this way you can trap the people in a team in a state of anxiety and aggression. Not the type of team that will harness their collective hydraulic power to generate a hit.

The consequences of letting a team boundary test slide have an added unfortunate outcome, as I alluded to earlier: members have the experience that a wall they thought was there might not be there. By might I mean that it requires further testing to find out. In other words, if no one talked to me about delivering suboptimal quality, I may do it again, in part just to find out whether it’s ok or not.

it’s normal to push against the fence to see if it holds

Boundary testing is not usually conscious. Assuming I am capable of producing good work, delivering poor quality off and on communicates that I am testing boundaries, whether I am conscious of that or not. If it’s never addressed (especially for important things), then unfortunately my whole team is pulled to start over with mapping the perimeter of the space they have to move around in.

In many cases we unwittingly practice intermittent reinforcement. Partly due to our tendency to skip role definition and to keep targets loose, our aversion to process and rules, as well as being in many cases shy of conflict, we often get results similar to the team power-destroying evil genius described above. For example, many company-wide policies (how we handle titles, raises, low performance, high performance, internal transfers, promotions, demotions, to name a few) are enforced differently depending on who is involved, with no visible or consistent boundary.

Whether limits are known or unknown, consequences are still to be had from time to time for crossing the wrong one, though when they will be addressed, in which way, and how harshly is largely unpredictable. In cases where the walls are perceived to change based on the mood of the leader, the teams struggle particularly and team trust shatters nearly beyond the point of repairability.

Boundary tests in teamwork are a natural part of the storming stage.

This has unintended negative effects for us, because it’s actually the best way to create a boundary-testing group of stormy, angsty teenagers out of a team. If I could give you a formula for making sure a team never performs, it would be to ignore the need for boundaries at all, refrain from discussing the idea of enforcement, neglect to address it when personal or implied boundaries are tested, especially by you but also anyone in the team, and then finally occasionally enforce something, after all, just when everyone thought nothing will be enforced. Although none of us are evil geniuses doing it on purpose, what I see going on in teams tells me we are actually having the same effect.

So what’s the right thing to do if you want to help your team internalize boundaries (assuming you’ve been able to set some through role clarification, working agreements and delegation agreements) and become secure as a group?

sometimes there’s too much space to run around in

To improve this constructive conflict factor

Address boundary tests and enforce the boundaries we have set with teams. Get in the habit of acknowledging every boundary violation, subtle or gross, somehow, someway. I am not suggesting that every violation needs to be responded to harshly, quite the contrary, but rather that it should be talked about and can be done in a gentle but consistently escalating way.

Get used to the storming stage and practice setting boundaries.

Here’s an example. The first time Holly doesn’t complete items she committed to in the sprint, someone in the team should say:

Holly, I see that you committed to these items but they didn’t get finished on time, what happened?

The second time, you say:

Holly, you committed to these items and didn’t finish them. This is a problem for the team because we had to wait for you, and it messed up our rhythm and velocity. We also have a working agreement about communicating immediately if we think we overcommitted in the sprint. What happened?

The third time, it’s:

Holly, you again didn’t deliver everything you’d committed to. We’ve talked before about the problem this creates for the team and listened to what you said about it, but it hasn’t changed. This is very important and if you can’t improve this ASAP, we have a big problem. What happened?

The fourth time you say:

Holly, you again committed to something you didn’t finish. We have talked a few times already about the problem this creates for the teamwork and that it wasn’t going to be ok to keep doing it. We have a significant problem now, so let’s put together a performance improvement plan.


Holly, we put you on this performance improvement plan with clear guidelines about the behavior we expected from you, how long we expected it, what would be a good-enough improvement, and what wouldn’t be a good-enough improvement. We gave you a chance to weigh in on what you needed and wanted, and you agreed you’d understood the parameters. But now you haven’t achieved the good-enough improvement markers we laid out, so even though I hate to lose you in this team and it makes me sad, we have to let you go.

The best way to help the team through the conflict stage is to use boundaries.

Now, hopefully long before the last step, the boundary-testing team gets the point that there is a boundary and moves on from needing to test it. This will help everyone in the team understand the shape of their team. For a simple template on how to acknowledge a team boundary violation, please read here. Another simple pattern, which can also be used to address boundary violations is:

When you did X
I felt Y/it created problem Y for me/the team
What I want is Z

Addressing boundary violations is important, no matter what type of working agreement is tested (logistical, attitudinal, behavioral, enforcement, etc). In an excellence-producing team dynamic, boundary violations are addressed by all and not just the team lead.

For those of us not in the habit of articulating boundaries, personal or otherwise, or who fear loss of regard from the others if we start doing so, then it’s practice, practice, practice!

The reward lies in teams which, having competently navigated the ultra-important, differentiating conflict stage, merge their energies into a dynamically powerful force of diversity within unity.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, outrage, confusion, request for examples, and anything you feel you want to share.