Boundaries are demarcation lines that differentiate a system from its environment and other systems. As a consequence, they enable this system to grow an identity, to concentrate on a focus and they protect this system from environmental interference and disruptions. To go further, boundaries also impact tasks and behaviors reinforcing those that are aligned with the system’s values and standards and inhibiting those that are not.

Group’s boundaries

Inward Facing Boundary

Boundaries are inward and outward. Inward boundary enables: Team's Identity, Focus and Persistence. Outward boundary as buffering inhibits distractions and perturbations, as spanning provides resources, new ideas and a feeling of belonging to the organization.

The first boundary defines the group and who are its members. Then as a consequence who is not a member of this group. In other words, this is the inward facing boundary that is a close, isolative and protective function of the boundary. This boundary enables a mutual attraction and a feeling of belonging that generates an embryo of common identity. In addition, consistency and trust start to emerge. Surely, teams emerge, survive and develop thanks to their boundaries.

Outward Facing Boundary

The second boundary specifies how the group interacts with its environment and the other groups. To put it differently, it is the outward facing boundary that is an opening, infiltrating and developmental function of the boundary. It starts with identifying key external groups that the group needs to interact with to achieve its goals. Indeed, a group may require external resources and contributions to deliver its mission or even just to survive. In addition, the group will grow with new and fresh ideas with members of the group being part of networks spreading over boundaries. At last, belonging to something bigger that the group may be an inspiration for its members.

Outward Facing Boundary balances:

  • Boundary spanning is the role of the boundary to perform its controlled exchanges and interactions with the environment and the other groups.
  • Boundary buffering is the role of the boundary to protect the group from environmental penetration, buffering potential disturbances and noises what ever their nature: technical, administrative, cultural, and political. So the group remains free and focused to achieve its goals.

Management’s role with group’s boundaries

Defining boundaries to build groups then teams is one of the core mission of management. And it is a dynamic activity. Firstly, boundaries are to be enforced. Secondly, boundaries may evolve to change a the team. To illustrate:

  • Increase focus of a team by narrowing or closing its boundaries.
  • Boost the energy of a team by increasing or opening its boundaries.

Output of group’s boundaries

The result of the group’s boundaries are to define a group, to structure it and to enable this group to become a team, once it has defined its mission, vision and values.


Brain requires focus

Before going further in boundaries, let’s review a key characteristic of our brain. To work properly, the executive functions of our brain require focus.

Have you ever tried to be creative while continually getting interrupted or having snowballs thrown at you? Have you ever tried to solve three different, complex problems at once?
Boundaries for Leaders – Henry Cloud

Multitasking reduces an astronaut’s brain to that of a confused hamster.
Boundaries for Leaders – Henry Cloud

The approach to grant our brain the focus it needs to function properly, structures over 3 principles:

  • Focus on something specific. This is attention: the ability to focus on relevant stimuli and block out everything else: “Pay attention!”
  • Prevent all distractions, either non related requests or data, so the brain remains focused. This is inhibition: the ability to “not do” actions that could be distracting, irrelevant, or even destructive: “Don’t do that!”
  • Enforce persistence of context and information related to the focus. This is working memory: the ability to retain and access relevant information for reasoning, decision making, and taking future actions: “Remember and build on relevant information.”

Building a group, as defined above, is a first step to serve the brain’s requirement for focus but there is a need for more.


Team’s boundaries, Inward and Outward Facing

If the group boundaries define the physical perimeter of the group and its members, the team boundaries go a step further defining what the team works on, its mission and vision, and how it does its work, its values and standards. Two key behaviors set the team boundaries: what you create and what you allow. Of course, the manager has a key role here in role modelling but above all in defining and enforcing the boundaries.

Team boundaries demonstrate both positively and negatively to enforce a goal. They impact activities supporting the mission and behaviors enforcing the values and standards:

  • Positively and inward facing, they promote activities and tasks and enforce good behaviors that build what is desired.
  • Negatively and outward facing, they prevent distraction and even confusion. They ban activities, tasks and behaviors not aligned with the goal, the standards and the values or impacting team performance like negative behaviors.

In truth, establishing and maintaining positive and negative boundaries requires a lot of energy and persistence. In addition, if building and leading to purse a goal demand a lot of time and energy, surely, there is the need for the same time and energy to protect and defend this goal against other goals and other visions of this goal.

Management’s role with team’s boundaries

All start with properly defining the goal.

Clarity leads to attention and attention leads to results.
Boundaries for Leaders – Henry Cloud

Clearly, the rules of the brain drive the manager to enforce focus:

  • Define focus and enforce attention: what is important and is to be attended to.
  • Request and enforce inhibition: what is not important or even destructive is not allowed in.
  • Support working memory: all information to deliver tasks for the goal persist in the team’s brains.

Outputs of team’s boundaries

As a result, the team can work with freedom and focus:

  • Select goals based on anticipated outcomes: team can choose goals based on priority, relevance, experience, and knowledge and anticipate the outcomes.
  • Plan and organize: team can plan actions and mobilize resources to achieve goals.
  • Initiate and persist: team can start and continue till completion tasks required to achieve goals, despite environmental noise and distractions.
  • Flexibility: team gets the big picture, adapts and solves problem to progress to goal, despite roadblocks and changing environment.
  • Meet constraints: team deals with time and resource constraints and manages execution accordingly.
  • Monitor and self-regulate: team monitors and reviews its performance and adapts to reach the goal.

Boundaries: more benefits

Boundaries enable delegation and empowerment

  • Firstly, as explained by David Marquet in his book Turn the ship around, clarity of intent is the first pillar to build autonomy. The second one is mastery, having the skill to deliver one’s tasks. So, by providing a clear intent, you are able to delegate and empower people when they also have mastery on the tasks they perform.
  • Secondly, the boundaries provide a guideline overtime. Indeed, for each task and behavior, they enforce focus, inhibit distraction and support persistence in information and context element, to progress toward the goal.
  • Thirdly, the frame set by boundaries is not static and can evolve to match changes of the environment, while at the same time preserving the purpose of focus, inhibition and persistence.

As a result, the team enjoys the benefits of empowerment in terms of motivation and of growing in skills and autonomy. In addition, outcomes of the team increases too.

Our brain needs also psychological safety

Our brain needs the structure for its executive functions to work properly. But it also need a positive and safe psychological climate to stay away from destructive stress. This is what we call Psychological Safety. In stress situation, the brain shuts down all of the functions that make us smart and activates its part designed to deal with danger. This is the end of thinking and creativity, and the area of well known routines and automatic answers. As a matter of fact, this happens even when our live and our physical integrity are not at stake. When we fear something, we focus on this threat, not on what we may improve or create.

So, this is part of the role of the manager to build a positive work environment and to prevent everything that could spoiled it. And boundaries are here also helpful.

Boundaries support Psychological Safety

A lack of structure in a team with unclear boundaries creates stress the same way of a threat. Think about a classroom of kids without supervision. Very quickly, they get out of hand, and to act out, most of the time against each other. Surely, boundaries are of a help here as they build the positive boundaries that will drive “attending” to positive behaviors and “inhibit” negative ones. So, as manager, establish and enforce the boundaries with behaviors, if you do not want your team to turn into a devil’s playground.

Boundaries for managers themselves

The higher you go in the hierarchy, the fewer drive you will get to focus your energy and actions. Instead, you have to organize your actions, time and resources toward your goal, with only the reality of results as a reminder. So, be proactive and unlike many managers, do not let your day to day activities and the events from your environment lead you and shape you. Do not fall in the trap of being in a reactive mode, just responding to environment events and problems, with at the end losing sight of your mission and purpose.

Clearly, boundaries can help managers to set some healthy reinforcement mechanisms:

  • Firstly, set boundaries to open yourself to outside inputs as they bring energy, inspiration and guidance. In addition to internal advisers, consider external ones. Indeed, this removes the risk of political games as there is no conflict of interest. They are only there to help you without hidden agenda. In addition, they may bring you new ideas and help you solve issues that nobody else experienced in your organization.
  • Secondly, set boundaries to manage your time and energy. Make sure that they are properly aligned with your mission and purpose.
  • Thirdly, set boundaries to enforce the delivery of your main tasks and to fight against the risk of postponing. Clearly, this may especially happen with tasks demanding a lot of work, intellectual or psychological energy.
  • At last, set boundaries to self-reflect, acknowledge your strength and successes to re-energize, and grow on your weaknesses.

What’s next? Learn more about Agile Leadership and discover Coaching

Do you want to learn more about Boundaries for Leaders and Team boundary management? Here are some valuable references

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