Role stress is a typical effect especially for people who are operating between the organization and its environment. Boundary spanners often spend much of their time interacting with external stakeholders (e.g. citizens, customers and clients) and often times address their variable, complex, and distinctive needs and interests (Stamper and Johlke, 2003). Moreover, boundary spanners often operate away from the home organization, mainly perform non-routine tasks, and experience multiple and often contrasting role expectations. As a consequence boundary spanners are likely to experience relatively high levels of role ambiguity and role conflict. In general role stress is used as an umbrella concept for both role conflict and role ambiguity (Stamper and Johlke, 2003). Role conflict is defined as role expectations that conflict with one another, and role ambiguity as a lack of clarity regarding role expectations (Rizzo et al, 1970). One way to cope with role stress is through social and organizational support (Fisher, 1985; Stamper and Johlke, 2003), which includes the support from coworkers and/or supervisors. This has been discussed in the previous chapter elaborating various factors influencing boundary spanning behavior, including factors impacting on role stressors and coping with role stress.
These experiences of role conflict also impact on the way boundary spanners assess their work of being a boundary spanner. Some studies find that boundary spanners experience this role conflict to such an extent that it hampers their performance and reduces their overall job satisfaction (Singh, 1993; Singh et al, 1996; Ramarjan et al, 2010). These studies approach front-line employees as boundary spanners acting between the firm and its customers. These boundary spanners have a unique position of acquiescing to the demands of the firm (i.e., managers, policy, and rules) and its customers and clients. However, this might also lead to role conflicts as they, for example, represent the organization and acting as a voice for the client at the same time. This puts them in a difficult spot, leading to frustration and confusion. Moreover, external parties, like client organizations confront boundary spanners with specific work- and culture related problems, such as not following-up agreements and lack of commitment and willingness to cooperate (Ramarjan et al, 2010). In turn, this might also hamper the job satisfaction of boundary spanners. As was discussed in the previous chapter, personal characteristics of boundary spanners also play a role in how boundary spanners prevent role stressors (such as role conflict) to emerge or to cope with role stressors once experienced.
Ambrose et al (2014) examine the relation between experienced role stress (in this case role ambiguity) and burn-out. In their study on sales persons (defined as boundary spanners between organization and customers) experience high degrees of role ambiguity and this in turn is related to burn-out and also decreased job performance. Boundary spanners due to their complicated tasks and maneuvering activities between home organization and organizations in the environment sooner lead to cases of burn-out and poorly experience and evaluate their job performance. Hence, executing boundary spanning roles may lead to (relatively) higher experienced roles tress. In turn, role stressors may impact on personal negative job outcomes (burn-out), but might also negatively impact on job performance of boundary spanners (see chapter 6).
Au and Fukuda (2002) further investigate the role ambiguity of boundary spanners by distinguishing different roles, ambassador, scout, and coordinator. Interestingly, the ambassador role negatively impacted upon role ambiguity; the other two roles do not necessarily increase role ambiguity. The authors suggest that this may be caused due to the success of integrating external (goals) pressures and internal pressures (organizational goals). This means that the presentation of a good company image reduced the experienced role ambiguity of boundary spanners. This may have occurred because the goals of internal agents and those of outside agents were compatible. As demands from different parties become similar, this reduces role ambiguity of boundary spanners. Moreover, as through their roles of connecting communities boundary spanners experience high job satisfaction and individual power in getting things done. Boundary spanners who experience role benefits and acquire community resources exert more power than those who lack such attributes, because tying organizations to the external environment tends to confer power to the linked individuals.
Next to potential negative job outcomes due to the experience of role stress typical for boundary spanners, positive personal (job) outcomes for boundary spanners are also found in the literature. Boundary spanners also experience their work in a positive way. We discuss this in the next paragraph.
Positive personal outcomes: meaningfulness and influence
Some studies pay attention to the extent boundary spanners value their work more positively than previously discussed under work load, job stress and even burn-out. The work of boundary spanning is also found to be influential and meaningful. In the study by Kohring et al (2013) for example approach public relation managers as boundary spanners in their activities to shape the university’s public image. In the terminology of Springston and Leichty (1994), university PR managers mainly fulfill a representational boundary-spanning function, with the informational boundary-spanning function having little or no relevance. In mediatized universities, PR managers are perceived as ‘public experts’. In this case, they become involved in strategic decision-making processes, thus gaining executive influence. Kohring et al (2013) found that PR managers who are considered expert boundary spanners at their universities exert more influence on executive decisions.
In addition Manev and Stevenson (2001) found that centrality in extended network is positively and significantly associated with self-perceived and attributed influence. They study the relationship between boundary-spanning communication and individual influence in a network with 108 organizational members. Manev and Stevenson (2001) find that boundary spanning correlates with influence, regardless of hierarchical level. Outside interactions are an important channel for obtaining important environmental information and gaining stature. Moreover, those who are more active in the extended networks ten to be more influential. There is also a curvilinear relationship between boundary-spanning communication and individual influence. The relationship between boundary-spanning orientation and influence is curvilinear as influence rises until a moderately high value of orientation, and slightly decreases for extremely high values. Those boundary spanners who manage to balance their external boundary spanning and internal contacts appear to be most influential. This is in line with the findings of Tushman and Scanlan (1981) that effective boundary spanning requires extensive contacts with actors both across and within the organization’s boundary. Moreover, that these competent boundary spanners have gained high status within the organization, which further enhance their internal organizational contacts.
7.3 Organizational performance
A lot of literature on the impact of boundary spanning is interested in how these activities improve the performance of organizations. In the studies different indicators are used to measure organizational performance. Most often, team or firm productivity is examined as a type of organizational performance in relation to boundary spanning behavior. Furthermore, innovation is also regularly examined as a type of organizational performance in the boundary spanning literature. This often also includes the role of knowledge absorption and learning as mediating variables between boundary spanning behavior and innovation. Other types of organizational performance used are efficiency, technological transfer/evolution, product quality and expansion of organizational capabilities. We first turn to productivity of teams and organizations.
Team and organizational productivity
The relationship between boundary spanning behavior and team/firm productivity has gained a lot of attention in the literature. Many authors have found these two are positively related (Sleep et al, 2015; Lee et al, 2011; Drach-Zahavy, 2011; Sharma et al, 1999; Walter, 1999; Walter & Gemunden 2000; Robertson, 1995; Rosenkopf & Nerkar, 2001). Looking at these studies, what strikes us is that these studies mainly originate from business administration literature and deal with sales persons approached as boundary spanners, as they serve as linking pins between firms and client organizations (see also chapter 4 on detecting boundary spanners and measuring boundary spanning).
Walter (1999) and Walter and Gemunden (2000) for example show that boundary spanners have a significantly positive effect on sales growth. As hypothesized, both relationship outcomes “growth of sales within two years in the customer relationship” and “supplier’s share of the customer’s business” are significantly higher if the relationship is advanced by boundary spanning activities. They also found that boundary spanners already have been acting longer within the customer relationships, meet more people on the side of the customers, and know more people on the side of the customers better than persons who are not positively committed in the business relationships. These results indicate that more experienced boundary spanners have a stronger impact on organizational productivity. Also Dollinger (1984) found this relationship in his study on the boundary spanning activity of small business entrepreneurs.
In addition, Sleep et al (2015) included (perceived) customer satisfaction next to team productivity. They found positive impact of boundary spanning behavior on (1) customer satisfaction and (2) team productivity. However, they stress that boundary spanning is like walking a tightrope, as the boundary spanners have to manage multiple boundaries, i.e. the customer and the within-firm boundaries. With their empirical test of the model on data from 167 sales teams, Sleep et al (2015) found that the interaction between customer boundary spanning and within-firm coordination activities has opposite effects on perceived customer satisfaction and team performance outcomes. So, boundary spanning has positive effects on team performance and customer satisfaction, but the within-firm coordination with top management negatively influences these impacts. Within-firm coordination can take too much time and energy which in turn hamper their boundary spanning work to the client. Boundary spanners constantly face the challenge of walking the tightrope and find balance between internal and external orientation (compare chapter 5 on profiles of boundary