The role of a manager largely involves working across boundaries. In carrying out strategy, and in communicating workers’ needs and know-how, managers must work across hierarchical boundaries in which they represent and translate the experiences of different stakeholders, including themselves.
Many studies have highlighted managers’ position as one of in-betweenness, and their skills as those of managing the ambiguities, misunderstandings, and even political differences, between various groups within their organisation. The idea of working across boundaries is a particularly interesting one, especially when those boundaries are in flux or contested, and so we find that the boundaries that once were inherent to a specific role or position can no longer be taken for granted.
Boundaries at work can be reinforced or subverted to protect groups or allow their collaboration. But how do middle managers navigate these boundaries in the workplace, and what kind of “boundary work” do they engage in to delineate or sometimes blur the boundaries at play in the organisation? This is the question we studied in a recent paper published in the Journal of Management Studies, together with professors Gazi Islam (Grenoble Ecole de Management) and Annick Ancelin-Bourguignon (ESSEC Business School).
To do so, we observed and interviewed the staff of an audit firm. We wanted to understand the experience of boundary work and managers’ motives for carrying it out. What we found is that through boundary work managers don’t simply reinforce or undermine boundaries, but they actively and selectively configure them, to make them more, or less visible.
We also found that boundary work can be a highly political activity. By engaging in boundary work, middle managers are able to not only filter and translate top-management ideas but can also create spaces where action is possible. They can decide to close off or open up spaces in ways that allow them to consolidate their position of power and to influence the organisation “from the middle”. We also found that boundary work also enables managers to choose to bring closer different teams or ranks by promoting communication between them, or conversely, create distance between them.
Our research outlined four types of ‘boundary work’:
Barricade boundary work
Barricades are boundaries that are easy to see and difficult to cross. Middle managers erect barricades to highlight and legitimise their own positions, making themselves gatekeepers for organisational practices. For instance, they may position themselves as the spokesperson for management to employees, and the employees’ spokesperson to management. They can emphasise their autonomy and authority, and create a parallel realm of action where they exert unique control.
Façade boundary work
Façades give the impression of solid boundaries but are in fact porous and insubstantial. Middle managers engage in façade boundary work to symbolically mark differences between groups that traditionally require ongoing collaboration. So, the façade they create allows them to regulate communication between these groups at key moments. Managers can therefore exert agency without challenging or calling into question established organisational hierarchies.
Taboo boundary work
Taboo boundaries are those that must remain hidden, even if they remain operative. Taboo boundary work occurs largely among peer managers, where cultivating a spirit of collegiality and cooperation requires overlooking established power differences or diverse interests. Whereas façades involve publicising differences while engaging in collaboration, taboos maintain surreptitious differences together with a patina of togetherness. Much of what is taboo often involves competition over scarce resources or status among middle managers.
Phantom boundary work
Unlike the previous three forms of boundary work that involved ongoing group differentiations, the most elusive of boundaries, phantom boundaries, remain invisible. Managers create them by selectively ignoring or dissolving formal boundaries to establish connections, where “doing it despite” is felt as a part of the relationship building. For instance, in order to foster agile communication and shorter projects’ timeframes, managers temporarily downplay departmental and seniority boundaries. As a strategic choice, phantom boundary work places a premium on flexibility and illustrates that not only erecting, but also lowering boundaries, constitutes an important form of boundary negotiation.
Middle managers’ boundary work is fundamental to organisations. Their “walling in and walling out” practices are distinct from and less visible than top management strategy making, but are just as important. Our research shows that managers don’t simply put up or remove boundaries, but they work within a spectrum. Because they are at the heart of the workplace, understanding managers’ boundary work everyday activity is key to understanding how organisations work, and how strategy is to be put into practice.
Boundary work is often not recognised within organisations, even though it has an important impact. By changing the boundaries that define themselves and others, middle managers shift their own identities, and this can lead to confusion and personal difficulties as they seek to understand who they are and how they relate to others in their activities. Boundary work will make managers just as much as managers will make boundaries.
Ricardo Azambuja is an associate professor at Rennes School of Business