March 9, 2021

We need to talk about the dark side of intrapreneurship

Hint: too much freedom, paradoxically, becomes a source of stress.

Tim Heard

7 min read

Photo by Q000024 form PxHere

Intrapreneurship is often depicted as something of a heroic endeavour. But 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 don’t outweigh the benefits of being an intrapreneur — either for the individual of the organisation. But if we talked about the 'dark side' more, we could develop better programmes that would drive better outcomes. Understanding this ‘dark side’ of intrapreneurship can also help us to better prepare intrapreneurs for the journey ahead and allow them to get into the right mindset.

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 is 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 counterproductive.  As a result, intrapreneurial activities are generally given more wriggle room.


Interestingly, however, my research has shown 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. As one interviewee put it:

we didn't have a compass...[you're] told to ride this bike but not really knowing what direction you're going in or where you were, where you were ending up...

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 intrapreneurship space and traditional organisational structures are key flashpoints and can be negative experiences for intrapreneurs which can impact their mental wellbeing.

Emotional investment vs the desire for meaningful work

Being emotionally invested is an important part of intrapreneurship. 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. One of my interviewees told me:

this was a super hard thing to do and no one was making us do it other than ourselves.

The desire for meaningful work is pivotal in becoming an intrapreneur, and many of my participants took great pleasure from this. Another one put it:

you know when something's worth investing your time in, because you get a feeling from it.

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” (credit to Gib Bulloch for this phrase!) 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.

Even though intrapreneurship is widely thought to benefit companies, the organisational processes designed to protect the company (the corporate immune system) can still work to undermine intrapreneurs who often find approvals difficult to obtain. This represents a paradox of organisational behaviour as 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. Autonomy-maximising approaches are actually least likely to lead to positive mental wellbeing. One interviewee described intrapreneurship like a double life:

I tried to do the best I could, of having one inbox but with two very different lives going on at the same time.

In effect, having a structure is enabling for intrapreneurs.

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 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. As one interviewee put it:

I think that's when things started to get tricky, because you suddenly had all of these competing stresses that were being layered on.

Intrapreneur mindset 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 mindset 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 underdeveloped 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. One interviewee reflected that:

I think we definitely sell a rose-tinted version of what their future could look like...And what that will do for their career.

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.

In 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 tensions have the potential to impact on the mental wellbeing of social intrapreneurs if organisational or programmatic structures do not account for them.

The good news is that corporate attitudes are changing and there is more support for intrapreneurs. The Covid-19 crisis appears to be accelerating the shift, but corporations should make sure they support their new intrapreneurs fully — by adding some structure to their freedom and not misrepresenting how hard the journey might be.

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.
Tim Heard is the cofounder of Circle of Intrapreneurs, a community for changemakers working inside corporations.