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The Limits of maintaining relationships

Datum:25 augustus 2016
Auteur:David DeGeest
The Limits of maintaining relationships
The Limits of maintaining relationships

Teams in modern organizations often must actively build and maintain direct relationships with other teams in their organization, and team boundary spanning refers to team behaviors aimed at real­time mutual adjustment between teams in an organization or system that shares goals. Boundary spanning enables teams to obtain external resources for executing their tasks and align their actions with organizational goals. Most research has reported positive outcomes associated with boundary spanning, and a remarkably optimistic view on boundary spanning has emerged with claims like, “The positive impact of team boundary spanning on team outcomes (…) has been solidly established.”[I]

However, boundary spanning can also have drawbacks for team performance because it may lead to “under bounded” teams. [II] Boundary spanning can reduce the time available for necessary internal activity, leading to internal coordination failures and low team viability. Despite this risk, little research assesses when boundary spanning’s potential drawbacks emerge.[III]  The question is can we predict when and why the negative effects of boundary spanning emerge, and in this way find adequate and timely measures to prevent these effects?

A group of researchers at the University of Groningen have recently attempted to address this question. Drawing from the definition of team boundary spanning as real­time adjustments across teams to address resource constraints, these researchers examined two factors that influence the utility of team boundary spanning. The first factor they examined interteam interdependence (i.e. resource constraints across teams, as an external task demand that changes the utility of spending teams’ time and attention to boundary spanning. The second factor they investigated is team monitoring (i.e., the extent to which team members are aware of and observe each other’s actions for the purpose of adjustment)[IV] as a strategy for raising team members’ awareness of members’ internal resource constraints. They tested their model in a field study among 72 diverse healthcare teams in the Netherlands.

Results from this study showed that the effects of boundary spanning on team performance depended on both interteam interdependence and the team´s ability to engage in monitoring. More specifically, when interteam interdependence was high, team boundary spanning resulted in higher team performance and viability. When interteam interdependence  was low, team boundary spanning resulted in lower team performance and viability. Similarly, when team monitoring was high, the team boundary spanning led to higher team performance and viability. When team monitoring was low, team boundary spanning resulted in lower team performance and viability.

The study has several important implications for managers:

First, team managers need to consider the degree to which their team has external interdependencies and also whether the team has an effective internal monitoring system in place when making decisions about boundary spanning. Making sure that team members are aware of when they face shared resource constraints as well as what resources are already available in their team seems to maximize the utility of boundary spanning activity for teams.  

Second, boundary spanning seems to have effects on teams beyond task performance. This study shows that boundary spanning can both positively and negatively influence team viability, which can cause team members to withdraw from the team and hamper the team’s long term effectiveness. Because team members’ withdrawal has substantial negative consequences for component teams and their parent organizations,[V] managers must be aware of how team boundary spanning influences not only task performance but also the capacity of a team to work together in the future. This study cautions managers to consider that boundary spanning activity, while may be necessary, can impact both short term as well as long term performance in teams, if not monitored sufficiently.

*This post is based on the following article: DeGeest, D.S., de Vries, T., & van der Vegt, G. The Limits of Boundary Spanning in Teams. Paper presented at the 2016 Academy of Management Conference, Anaheim, CA. This paper was paper selected for the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings (top 10% of all papers accepted to the AOM conference) and the winner of the Merck Outstanding Practical Implications Award.


[I] Marrone, 2010: 926

[II] Ancona & Caldwell, 1988

[III] Gibson & Dibble, 2013Íž Sosa et al., 2015

[IV] Marks & Panzer, 2004

[V] (Heavey, Holwerda, & Hausknecht, 2013)


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