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Boundaries and Borders: Do They Enrich or Imprison Us?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. 

We live in a world of boundaries – a term that can be defined in many ways:

A dividing line.

A point or limit that indicates where two things become different.

Frontiers inviting exploration and development.

Some boundaries appear on maps as divisions between countries.   Others are physical, such as fences or walls.  In recent years technology has removed many of the boundaries that separated us in the past.  However, internal or psychological boundaries seem to have become more entrenched now than ever before.  And since boundaries of any type can enrich or imprison us, the question I am exploring this month is this:  How can we ensure that the boundaries which frame us are generative rather than limiting?

Personal and Social Boundaries

All of us have our own values and beliefs that serve as personal boundaries, distinguishing us from others. [1] In addition, most of us have social boundaries consisting of common rules which we believe to be typical of the groups with whom we identify. [2]  While our personal and social boundaries serve a number of purposes, some of the most critical purposes for boundaries are the following:

Boundaries allow us to develop our own identity – what is uniquely me as distinguished from others.

Boundaries differentiate “us” from “them” and thus provide us with a sense of belonging.

Boundaries can enable us to feel safe and secure.

At first glance, these functions appear to be beneficial.  Yet when we take a closer look at how people perceive and act on their own personal and social boundaries, we often realize they can also hold us in place and prevent us from making positive changes.  Rigid psychological boundaries that confine us to a narrow worldview can:

Alienate us from potentially enriching relationships.

Keep us from growing in ways that could significantly improve our lives.

Block our ability to achieve aspirational goals.

Inhibit productive collective conversations.

Guarantee our vulnerability rather than our safety.

Prevent us from joining with others to create workable solutions to what may seem to be intractable challenges.

As Katrin pointed out in the July blog, we have been arguing for “the need for a common space where burning societal issues can be resolved among concerned stakeholders.”  She used the showdown between Greece and the other members of the EU as an example, arguing that in the end, the conflict  was  resolved with the “lowest possible outcome.”

Katrin maintained that this could have been avoided if the players had established a common vision and followed a sound, facilitated process.  I accept her line of reasoning and add to it the notion that the poor outcomes also resulted national boundaries so rigid as to prevent  solutions in the best interest of all the stakeholders.

While I am not informed enough to jump into the fray involving Greece and the EU, I can comment that some of those same dynamics seem to be shaping up here in the USA.

Boundaries on display in the USA:  Enriching or Imprisoning?

This has been the summer in which political boundaries within the USA have been on embarrassingly rich display.  The popularity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign appears to be based on several boundary-related issues:

His commitment to build a physical boundary – a wall — to protect the USA from illegal immigrants.

His affirmation of American Exceptionalism that reaches beyond national pride and crosses into blatant disrespect for anyone who is not a white, Anglo Saxon male who values wealth and fame above all else.

His contempt for those who do not share his specific values and beliefs. His favorite descriptions of those who differ from his point of view appear to be “stupid and losers.”

Don’t get me wrong, I too feel national pride in our country.  I believe that the American Exceptionalism boundary can be used for the common good when it enables us to bring our best to the global collective, while at the same time appreciating the assets and contributions of others.   In contrast, Trump uses American Exceptionalism as a line in the sand that not only divides and alienates us from other nations but also creates problematic rifts among our own populace.

And yet an article in USA Today this week pointed out that “Regardless of their feelings toward him, Americans seem to enjoy watching Trump.”  The primary debate in Cleveland drew the largest audience ever for such an event.

Undoubtedly a part of Trump’s appeal is his fame.  This week the Washington Post reported on comments made by criminal justice professor Adam Lankford about Americans’ fascination with fame.  “The priority of fame is more common and stronger in the U.S. than perhaps in any other culture in the world,” Lankford said. And at the same time, “The distinction between fame and infamy seems to be disappearing.”  Is this part of our American Exceptionalism boundary?  And if so, does it enrich our lives or imprison us?  Does it make us safer or more vulnerable?

In the same Washington Post article, Lankford commented on the relationship of our captivation with fame and the very public shootings that have taken place recently.  He argued that in a country where all publicity is good publicity, a small percentage of people will guarantee their own fame by killing and by mass shootings.  A heartbreaking example was in front of the world this week as a disturbed former newscaster in Virginia shot and killed two of his colleagues during a live newscast in order to ensure that the act made it on TV.  The article poses the question of whether some aspects of our American Exceptionalism may be posing an exceptional American problem!

Boundaries that Bring Out Our Best

And now I return to my original question: How can we approach boundaries in ways that will enrich our lives and strengthen our bonds with others rather than imprison us and leave us ever more isolated and vulnerable?

I draw some suggestions from what we know about boundary-spanning leadership.  This is a concept developed through a decade of research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). They define boundary-spanning leadership as “the capability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across group boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.” [3] The researchers and authors listened to world leaders representing a wide variety of interests to identify signposts to a new type of leadership.  I loosely adapted the following suggestions from their many rich conclusions:

We have to acknowledge the role that boundaries play in our identities as well as those of other groups. In a recent article in Environmental Leader, Gary Lawrence, Chief Sustainability Officer of AECOM Technology, argued for the importance of recognizing that history and identity are key components in all social structures.  “The important issue here is to achieve clarity on which aspects of identity matter most and to ensure that they are carried forward into the future.”

We must not vilify those in other groups as a way of building a false sense of security within our own group.  For example, does our disrespect and actual hatred for those with different religions and ethnic backgrounds really make us safer? New York Time Op Ed Columnist, Charles M. Blow wrote an article this week entitled “Enough is Enough.”  He suggested that we quit giving Donald Trump the attention that he craves for his outrageous assertions and behaviors.    Where is that boundary between fame and infamy? Can we see it clearly?

We can “reflect” to foster respect.  The CCL authors describe the practice of “reflecting” which involves groups exchanging images of their own values, needs, hopes, fears and priorities with one another.  Through this process, boundaries are clarified.  As differences are acknowledged, each group gains a sense of safety and security.  At the same time similarities are uncovered which can become common ground.

We can work on reframing boundaries such that we can form a broader community.  The CCL authors maintain that in a multi-stakeholder or boundary-spanning environment, as each group becomes secure in its own identity and learns to trust and respect the other group identities, a common intergroup identity can be forged.  The boundaries can expand and become inclusive so that each group can contribute to the achievement of the common goals.

Boundaries and borders:  We can’t exist without them because they frame our identities. But we can work to ensure that we bring the best of our own identity to the collective spaces where innovation occurs.  This is our best chance at resolving community problems.  And, in time, it’s just possible a few world problems might get solved as well.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Setting_boundaries

[2] http://study.com/academy/lesson/social-boundaries-definition-and-examples.html

[3] Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason. Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations. McGraw Hill, 2011

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

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