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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors*


In "The Power of Connections" (LEVERAGE Number 38), Tom Heuerman and Diane Olson state, "When we understand the importance of relationships, the boundaries that separate us disappear." I would venture to suggest that we should not strive to remove boundaries between people. It is only when we have clear boundaries that we can appreciate the value of relationships.

To illustrate this point, think about nature. If the boundary defining a living cell-the cell wall-disappeared, so too would the cell. In a social system-such as an organization, family, team, or neighborhood-the term "boundary" is a metaphor that likens the invisible perimeters of these living systems to cell walls. It is a useful comparison that describes the limits and identity of each individual within the system and of the system as a whole.

Boundary Functioning

Every living system has a boundary; some function better than others. Boundary functioning describes the connection between the system and the outside world. The ideal boundary, like a healthy cell membrane, is semipermeable and regulates the exchange of substances (energy, information, emotions) between one system and another. It is through this regulated exchange that the system can grow, change, adapt, and, paradoxically, maintain its identity. Rigid boundaries cut off contact with the external environment, starving and suffocating the system. On the other end of the spectrum, diffuse boundaries fail to maintain the system's identity, allowing information from the outside to engulf it. The ideal is a balance of the two extremes.

Most sustainable social systems achieve this kind of balance, with their boundaries simultaneously maintaining the system's identity and regulating their interaction with the outside. From this perspective, boundaryless is not the same as friendly, nor does having boundaries imply isolation. In the example cited in "The Power of Connections," in which an elderly woman's neighbors failed to notice her death for several years, the neighborhood exhibited the qualities of rigidity, possibly related to increasing crime and changing family structures. It is my experience that, during times of crisis or change, living systems tend to move toward more rigidity or diffusion. This concept is important for consultants to understand, because much of our work is the result of upheavals within organizations. Thus, after a transforming event, it is important to assess boundaries and reestablish effective functioning.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

For example, I do quite a bit of work with family businesses. The challenge for them is developing appropriate boundaries so that members deal with family issues within the family and business issues within the business. I have found the following questions useful to understand boundary functioning in this context How often do you discuss business issues at home? How often do family disagreements spill into the business arena? Are you speaking now as the mother or the president?

In larger corporations, rigid boundaries between departments can lead to conflicts when individuals from different functions work together on a project. Some questions for diagnosing boundary problems at this level include: What are the organization's goals? What is your department responsible for? What do you need from other departments to get your work done? Exploring such queries can help team members to understand more clearly their own roles and those of their coworkers.

Connections Thrive on Differences

Connections between people are made as individuals manage and work through differences. Again, think about nature. Differences in, for example, temperature, magnetic charges, pressure, and volume stimulate a flow of energy between two systems. In fact, the greater the differences, the more energetic the flow becomes.

Following this model, we should build into social systems procedures for managing the energy released by differences, not minimizing those differences. It is the negotiation, compromises, and flow of collaboration between different systems that create the strongest links. Forged through the management of differences, not sameness, these connections can then withstand the ever-changing, turbulent world in which sustainable social systems thrive.

*Originally in Leverage, June 2000



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