If your work has taken you into meetings with a partnering company, a cross-institutional committee, or any situation working together with another organisation, you've taken the role of a boundary spanner. Organisations do well out of boundary spanners, who deliver them information about external conditions and increase their reach to broader stakeholders. But Lakshmi Ramarajan and colleagues have demonstrated that there are costs for the boundary spanner, particularly in challenging, multi-party situations.
Social psychology suggests that contact across group boundaries is problematic outside of ideal circumstances. Disparate goals may fuel conflict; unfamiliar patterns of behaviour can be hard to adjust to; outside perspective may cast your own organisation in an unfavourable light. To investigate this, Ramarajan's team surveyed 833 Dutch military personnel, who spent time between 1995 and 1999 engaged in peacekeeping missions. Such missions occur against a backdrop of heavy conflict, and are made more problematic by status and resource differences between the peacekeepers and their non-military counterparts: NGO's, governmental bodies and local authorities.
Each participant detailed their frequency of personal contact with each type of party, and the degree of seriousness of work-specific problems that emerged with that party – a combination of objective severity and their personal involvement. Their responses confirmed that peacekeepers with more frequent contact with other parties had greater experiences of work-specific problems.
Previous research has suggested an inverse relationship between conditions 'home' and 'away', as if a spat with an external partner makes you more grateful for your colleagues. But in the current study, more work-specific problems with other parties led to more negative attitudes towards their own job and doubting the value of their mission. This resembles spillover from one domain to another, due to ruminations or drained psychological resources. The authors attribute the difference to the high demands on peacekeepers, juggling many parties on non-facilitated, difficult issues without the option to walk away, a situation increasingly common for more and more 21st Century organisations.
Boundary spanning activities are certainly useful to the organisation, and can benefit the individual, who tends to be more trusted and gain reputation with other organisations. But we should be concerned with its costs, eroding engagement with the work and faith in the organisation, which are especially likely in complex situations with soft organisational boundaries. As the authors conclude, those in this position may want to weigh these issues up “when thinking about the costs of alliances, joint ventures, or other cooperative mechanisms.”
Ramarajan, L., Bezrukova, K., Jehn, K., & Euwema, M. (2011). From the outside in: The negative spillover effects of boundary spanners' relations with members of other organizations Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32 (6), 886-905 DOI: 10.1002/job.723