Intrapreneurship is often depicted as something of a heroic endeavour. Whilst the act of developing, and delivering, new product concepts, particularly those which have societal purpose, is undeniably something to be celebrated I often feel the stories we tell undersell the potential for negative impacts on emotional wellbeing.

These do not outweigh the wide-ranging benefits of being an intrapreneur for the individual, or for organisations becoming intrapreneurial, but, if considered, can lead to programmes which drive better outcomes and manage intrapreneurs more effectively. Understanding this ‘dark side’ of intrapreneurship can also help us to better prepare intrapreneurs for the journey ahead and allow them to ‘minset-set’ more effectively.

Recent research I conducted with intrapreneurs from large corporate organisations showed that there is a dark side to intrapreneurship; moments where mental health can be on the line. The good news is that, once identified, these impacts can be mitigated by addressing three tensions at the heart of being an intrapreneur when constructing your intrapreneurship programme. These are: autonomy vs. control, emotional investment vs. the desire for meaningful work and intrapreneurs vs. the ‘corporate immune system’.  

Autonomy vs. control

At the heart of intrapreneurship there exists a tension between the desire of intrapreneurs to act autonomously and the desire of the organisations they reside in to control activities. These antagonistic processes have the potential to strongly influence the mental wellbeing of intrapreneurs. Intrapreneurship itself is driven, in part, by a desire to be autonomous and thus organisational attempts to regulate intrapreneurs are generally seen as counter-productive.  As a result intrapreneurial activities, and the discretionary space they often occupy, are generally given more wriggle-room than non-discretionary activities.

Interestingly, however, my research showed that the lack of structure around intrapreneurship is a key source of stress for intrapreneurs. This ranges from the lack of a clear pathway to follow through to the lack of hierarchy in the intrapreneurial team itself. Sometimes intrapreneurship projects start off structured, but this structure doesn’t extend all the way through to delivery of the project, and intrapreneurs can feel they ‘fall off a cliff’ midway through.  It is interesting to note that the lack of structure around discretionary activities is both a driving factor to initiate but also a source of stress.

Ultimately there comes a point where an intrapreneurial venture must be reintegrated with the traditional structure of the organisation in order to be delivered. The touch points between the discretionary organisational space intrapreneurship occupies and traditional organisational structures are key flashpoints and can be negative experiences for intrapreneurs which can impact on their mental wellbeing. 

Emotional investment vs. the desire for meaningful work

Being emotionally invested is an important part of the internal sales process for intrapreneurs. Without passion it is difficult to obtain the organisational resources required to deliver a venture. However, my research shows that emotional investment in a venture causes raised amounts of emotional stress in attempting delivery. Meaningful work is a double-edged sword.  The fact that intrapreneurs’ ventures are discretionary as opposed to mandatory exacerbates the problem.

The desire for meaningful work is pivotal in becoming an intrapreneur, and many of my participants took great pleasure from this. The fact that work is ‘meaningful’, however, simultaneously opens intrapreneurs to new, or exacerbated, sources of stress as well as threats to their mental wellbeing.

Intrapreneurs vs. the ‘corporate immune system’

Intrapreneurs fight against what is often referred to in intrapreneurship circles as the “corporate immune system” alongside preset narratives and established ways of doing things. Sometimes this conflict can help sharpen and improve the new idea that they are developing but it can also be stressful and destructive. If intrapreneurs are highly emotionally invested in their ventures or if their personal brand was closely entwined with the venture, this causes stress.  

It is interesting to consider that – given the wide ranging benefits of intrapreneurship to an organisation – the organisational processes designed to protect the organisation (the corporate immune system) may also be the same processes that undermine it by blocking intrapreneurs from operating effectively. This represents a paradox of organisational behaviour. The processes designed to protect organisations may ultimately be the same processes which cause them to fail. 

How to make it less stressful  

A balance must thus be established between freedom and structure early on in a social intrapreneurship journey and this must be continually reviewed and (re)constituted. Despite this autonomy-maximising approaches are actually least likely to lead to positive mental wellbeing. In effect,  having a structure is enabling for social intrapreneurs despite the disabling nature of organisational structure often being a driving motivation to become an intrapreneur

Control and autonomy, rather than being seen as alternatives, need to be managed in equilibrium to drive the best outcomes and protect intrapreneurs. Structure may also help clarify further the work/life divide which my research shows intrapreneurship can blur leading to stress. This equilibrium extends to when intrapreneurs have been ‘successful’ and are working on their ventures as their day job or, in other words, when the discretionary activity has become compulsory. Social intrapreneurs need to be given the space to craft their own structures with the organisation rather than despite it. It is a delicate balance between giving enough structure to support intrapreneurs without stifling the projects. 

Intrapreneur mind-set creation model

It was strongly felt by many participants that the narratives used to describe intrapreneurship were not reflective of the journey itself and thus the basis for the initial mind-set were not correct. This was seen as setting intrapreneurs up to fail by mismanaging expectations and being the root cause of a large amount of stress. I believe this is caused by an under-developed feedback loop within organisations to elucidate the direct human stories behind intrapreneurship. These human insights should be incorporated into the wider organisational discourse on intrapreneurship to ‘tell the full story’. It was interesting to note that some participants were still attempting to discern the ‘meaning’ of the journey years after its completion or closure.

Figure 1: Intrapreneur mind-set creation model

There also needs to be more acknowledgement that intrapreneurship is stressful. Corporations should be clear about the reasons why they encourage intrapreneurship. If they are hoping these projects will be useful and valuable for their company, they must be prepared to support them. They are not simply a “reward” with which to humour an employee seeking purpose. 

Conclusion

Intrapreneurship is a rewarding, but difficult, journey upon which to embark. It is clear from both the literature, and my research, that the driving factors for being an intrapreneur are, paradoxically, often the root causes of tension and stress when the journey has commenced. These paradoxical tensions have the potential to impact on the mental wellbeing of social intrapreneurs if organisational or programmatic structures do not account for them. My research shows that the difficulties in managing social intrapreneurs are driven by three key paradoxes: autonomy vs. control, emotional investment vs. the desire for meaningful work and social intrapreneurs vs. the corporate immune system. All of these can be better managed with improved organisational thinking on how to approach intrapreneurship.

The good news is that changing attitudes and shifting discourse are making organisational structures in corporations more enabling to intrapreneurs whilst also simultaneously creating agents with more ability to overcome the restrictive aspects of corporate structures. Indications are the COVID crisis at the time of writing will accelerate this discursive shift. Corporate organisations should prepare fully for this by carefully adding structure to the discretionary space occupied by intrapreneurship. If they do, they will unlock the potential of intrapreneurship and, ultimately, this will help to build a better world.

In conclusion, an interesting personal perspective:

 “the benefits outweighed, for me, the drawbacks. I wouldn’t change it for a minute. It was the best thing I could’ve possibly done. It became a huge part of my life. I get huge vicarious pleasure out of watching where is it now…and I’m sitting there just basking in that. I’ll always be the founder, right.” (Study participant in interview)