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Burnout risks for employees bridging organizational silos

In today’s dynamic and complex business environment, fostering collaboration across organizational silos—whether between teams, departments, or regional offices—has become essential. This approach is vital for improving performance, driving innovation, and enhancing coordination.


The vital role of boundary spanners

Both research and practical experience underscore the importance of engaging employees in breaking down silos. These employees, often referred to as "boundary spanners" or "network brokers," frequently go beyond their formal roles to bridge gaps between disconnected individuals and units within an organization. They facilitate the flow of ideas, information, and resources. Engaging in these activities can also advance employees' careers by exposing them to unique strategic information and insights from different parts of the organization.


However, our recent research reveals significant, less visible risks associated with cross-silo coordination. Through field data, surveys, and experiments involving over 2,000 working adults across two countries, we found that collaborating across silos, especially as intermediaries between disparate individuals, can lead to higher levels of burnout and negative social behaviors.


The hidden costs: Cognitive overload and emotional strain


While previous research has documented many benefits of boundary-spanning, we suspected that individuals engaged in cross-silo collaboration might face higher cognitive and emotional demands, potentially leading to increased burnout. We also aimed to understand if their exhaustion might result in abusive behavior toward others.


We used a multi-method approach to test our hypotheses. First, we conducted a field study at a university in South America, collecting anonymized email exchanges among employees to measure the extent of their cross-silo collaboration. We also measured their burnout and aggressiveness through surveys. In a second study, we surveyed a sample of U.S. employees from various industries, asking them to report on their cross-silo collaboration behaviors and subsequent burnout and abusive behaviors. In a third study, we conducted an experiment placing participants in different collaboration scenarios and measured their self-reported burnout and abusive behaviors. Across the studies, we found moderate levels of workplace-abusive behaviors, such as rudeness, negative comments, undermining, and belittling others.


Our findings indicate that cross-silo collaboration, particularly when managing disparate groups, increases burnout due to the additional cognitive and emotional demands. Employees need to handle complex, often conflicting information and perspectives, reconcile them to generate value, and adapt to divergent expectations and group norms. Additionally, individuals often have limited control over their collaborators’ work.


Case study: Nilam's experience

Consider Nilam, an engine system engineer at a startup, based on various informal manager interviews. Nilam worked with two coworkers from different teams: Jun, a marketer, and Riley, a production lead, on designing a new fuel-efficient engine. Initially excited, Nilam soon found the demands of these interactions overwhelming. Jun wanted a power-dense engine, while Riley was concerned about production costs and efficiency.


Nilam faced a cognitive load trying to reconcile these conflicting requirements through separate meetings, each ending with more action items. Adapting to different group norms—Jun's quick decision-making and Riley's methodical approach—further stressed Nilam, impacting their mental health.


Our research shows that the higher burnout experienced by boundary spanners like Nilam can spill over to coworkers, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or abusive behavior. Exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed can lead to abrupt comments, impatience, and conflict, threatening the vital role of boundary spanners in fostering cross-silo collaboration.



Organizational strategies for enhancing employee well-being and collaboration



What can organizations do to support essential cross-boundary engagement without exhausting their employees? We suggest three main strategies:


Incorporating cross-silo interaction into job roles



Certain functions are structurally positioned to engage in cross-silo collaboration more frequently, such as project management, sales and marketing, and human resources. Recognizing and formalizing these roles in job descriptions, workloads, and performance evaluations can reduce burnout. For instance, Nilam’s role should include engaging with key stakeholders from marketing and production, with specific objectives related to this boundary-spanning role.


Ensure sufficient resources


Burnout often results from a mismatch between job demands and available resources. It’s crucial to formally acknowledge people’s roles in cross-silo collaboration and equip them with the necessary resources, such as technological tools and training programs in communication, negotiation, cultural sensitivity, and project management. Recognizing and incentivizing achievements in cross-silo collaboration can also mitigate burnout. For example, introducing a “Cross-Function Collaboration Champion” award with a financial bonus can motivate and recognize individuals or teams excelling in cross-silo collaboration.


Implement check-in systems and disengagement opportunities



Due to the demanding nature of cross-silo collaborations, it’s vital for organizations and managers to identify when boundary spanners are becoming overloaded and help them disengage regularly. This involves a multifaceted approach combining direct communication, observation, and pulse surveys to detect burnout symptoms. Organizations should cultivate a culture emphasizing breaks and recovery time, legitimizing disengaging completely from work during non-working hours.


. . .


Cross-silo collaboration is a double-edged sword in the modern workplace. While it catalyzes coordination and innovation, it can adversely affect the well-being of those who engage in it. Organizations can adopt a multifaceted approach to support their boundary-spanning employees, ensuring their health and productivity for long-term success.


 

An article written by Eric Quintane, Sunny Lee, Jung Won Lee, Camila Umaña Ruiz, and Martin Kilduff


Sunny Lee is a Professor of Organisational Behavior and the Deputy Director of EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) at University College London. She is also the incoming Academic Director of the MSC in People Analytics and Human-Centric Management. She also holds an adjunct professor position at the London Business School. Sunny earned her Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School. Before transitioning to academia, Dr. Lee accumulated valuable experience as a business analyst and consultant at Accenture, Hewlett Packard, and E&Y Parthenon Consulting.Dr. Lee is widely acclaimed as a leading researcher in human resources processes, EDI, and employee wellbeing.


Her groundbreaking research, with over 2400 citations, has garnered attention from major global media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, NPR, and The New York Times. Additionally, she regularly contributes articles to Fast Company.With a prominent presence in MBA and executive education, Sunny has equipped numerous managers and executives with essential skills in negotiation and communications, organizational culture, and people analytics and EDI. She provides valuable guidance on human resources management and people analytics to a diverse range of organizations. Recent clients include the Metropolitan Police, the UK Civil Service, Canary Wharf Group, and Leonardo.

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