Personal Boundaries in a Development Team

Many factors influence the composition and effectiveness of a team.  Traditional managers create teams based on the skills needed and amount of work.  They feel that their skills at directing the team will ensure a successful outcome.

This article looks at the composition from the perspective of the team member.  Team members often have a different perspective on what makes a successful team compared to management.

Some of the topics being discussed are:

  • Personal Boundaries
  • Roles and Self-image as Boundaries
  • Individual Perspective on Right vs. Wrong
  • Team Members’ Ability to Influence Others
  • Conflict Resolution


A boundary if defined as:

  • (n) boundary, bound, bounds (the line or plane indicating the limit or extent of something)
  • (n) boundary, edge, bound (a line determining the limits of an area)

Some examples of boundaries:

  • Property lines
  • Personal space
  • Family
  • Job Description or Role
  • Self-Image
  • Anything that an individual claims as their own

Human beings protect their boundaries!  A person’s self-image, role, and job description represent a boundary.  People protect their job and self-image as they would their home. Different individuals have different views of their role and others. Conflicts arise when there are overlaps or gaps.  Overlaps are viewed as threats, gaps are viewed as shortcomings of the other person

Ideal Role Boundaries on a Team

In this diagram, the colored boxes represent the responsibility of the team member.  As you can see, there are no overlaps or gaps in responsibility.

Team work 1

Actual Role Boundaries on a Team

In practice, team member roles are rarely aligned this well.  It is more typical to have gaps or overlaps in perceived responsibility.

Team work 2

Gaps and overlaps are the stress points.  It creates feelings that another person is either doing my job or not doing their job.

Functional Approach to Team Responsibility

One way to avoid these gaps is to assign work based on deliverables rather than roles.

Team work 3

Roles as boundaries

Confronting a person’s role or self-image is a form of boundary violation – like hitting someone.  Socially aware individuals understand that challenging someone’s role or capability can be considered impolite and therefore avoid it.  Teams need to be comfortable recognizing when gaps and overlaps occur and be free to discuss it.

Team work 4

You can be right, or you can be part of the team.

Everyone creates a definition of the correct way to do things based on their unique individual experiences.  No two individuals have experiences that are identical, so their definition of correct may differ.  People don’t consciously decide to do something wrong and people don’t automatically accept another’s definition of right.  Everyone’s diversity of experience leads to differing approaches.  The challenge of an organization is to embrace diversity – leading to a better, broader solution.

The challenge for team members – try to understand why the other person thinks their approach is correct. What experience has influenced them?  What problems have they solved in the past.  One thing is for certain, they are not just trying to make your life difficult.

The goal should always be to get to an actionable approach.  Effective teams learn how to avoid getting stuck in analysis.  Leadership needs to identify this condition and step in to facilitate a decision.

Influencing Others

Traditional waterfall gave more power to the upfront activities.  The SCRUM approach levels the playing field by blurring the lines of roles and titles.  Individuals must now rely more on their personal skills to influence others.  Negotiating skills are now important. Developing the skills to influence others can take time.  It is much harder to convince a human than a computer!  This is uncomfortable for the traditional engineer that is used to working alone.

Conflict Resolution

Disagreement is natural and is to be expected, let’s not pretend that it does not happen.  Effective teams need to embrace this and provide constructive outlets for disagreement.

What should you do if you disagree?

Can you express the disagreement in common terms or goals?  Work to agree on the goal first before you disagree with the approach.  If you can’t agree on the goal you will never agree on the approach.  The goal becomes an independent frame of reference.  This avoids “I Win – You Lose” or “You Win – I Lose” thinking.  Discuss with the other person why you believe your approach optimizes achievement of the goal.  Be prepared to hear why they believe their approach works.  Be prepared to drop it if it is just style or does not contribute to the goal.


Understand boundaries and individual’s reaction to violations.  If the boundary of your job is not as clear to others as it is to you – discuss it when you think there is a gap or overlap

Come up with ways to confront gaps and overlaps without personal attacks – identify the goal!.  Understand what is “right” about the other persons approach, then come to an agreement

Understand influencing skills and how to apply them within the team.  Conflict is to be expected.  Conflict resolution has to become part of your skill set.

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