Good Fences Make Good Neighbors*
BY JANE HILBURT-DAVIS
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
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.
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
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
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