Building Healthy Organizations: The Promise and Problem of Boundaries

Leading Questions is a series of short essays on leadership from provost Janel Curry.

February 13, 2013

Many organizations, especially non-profits, are known for producing burn out. One of the reasons is that those people who work for non-profits are committed to the organizations out of a central passion. Often, then, there is no boundary between their personal commitments and the organizational mission. I call this the promise and problem of boundaries. We experience great joy from the lack of boundaries between our passion and our work, yet we also experience the stress when an organization goes through difficult times.

What can individuals and organizations learn from this tension?

First, we all need multiple spheres within which to invest our lives as a coping mechanism for stress and stress management. When our place of work is going through difficulties, we need to be able to invest elsewhere so that we can continue to be productive at work and weather the storm. Putting too high an expectation on informal socializing among colleagues can sometime keeps individuals from creating a healthy perspective. Greater psychological resilience over the long run is the result knowing there are several areas of our lives where we can find joy and fulfillment.

Second, we need to build personal agency into structures. Too often, stress is the result not of workload, but lack of personal agency. One strategy that an individual can use to exert this personal agency is what I call the, “No, but yes” response to a request to take on another task. This requires the awareness and courage to admit that we cannot do some things right now because we are working on other projects, but that we hope to be able to do that at another time. Often it is simply reframing a request that allows individuals to control their time and forces managers to set priorities.

Finally, we need to model taking Sabbaths and build a culture that honors efficiency, not business. A wise colleague once told me that executives should not work more than 45 hours a week because if they did, they would create more work for others. Some organizational cultures play the game of one up-man-ship. For example, I knew someone who bragged about the length of time he spent writing a letter of recommendation, implying to me that if others didn’t spend an entire day writing such a letter we were somehow uncommitted.

Occasionally, we must review our approaches to boundaries in our organization as well as individually, noting what is realistic on our list of projects, and consciously deciding what we are not going to accomplish and then cross it off that list. The promise of such boundaries fosters healthier, more productive environments.