Most managers have a hard enough time building a culture of collaboration within their own teams, much less with teams across multiple departments. However, this collaboration is often exactly what the company needs to solve problems, create infrastructure and share knowledge.
Without collaboration, your team is stuck trying to solve all of their problems on their own, without outside help.
There are many benefits to tearing down the departmental walls and merging teams to complete a project, but it’s not an easy task for a company that’s used to working a different way. Here are a few benefits to forming collaborative teams across departments and how to set them up for success.
Collaboration is a Sign of a Healthy Office
Collaboration and culture are a classic chicken-and-egg scenario within companies. Does collaboration create a sense of ownership or engagement? Or do engaged employees work together toward a common goal?
Whichever came first, there’s no doubt that collaboration across multiple departments opens the door for other employee benefits.
Primarily, collaboration creates a sense of purpose toward a common goal. As Dr. Rebecca Newton explains at the Harvard Business Review: “What makes teamwork different from collaboration is the goal. In collaborative leadership cases the goals may be different — the leaders may have different positions, but yet common ground can be almost always be found at the level of interests.”
William Buist at Training Journal believes collaboration encourages innovation as teams create new and better solutions for existing problems. “A company that develops the latest ideas is not afraid to allow people to experiment, even if that experiment does not succeed,” he says. “This helps employees feel free to explore new ideas rather than feeling restricted by the threat of failure.”
There are also other intangible benefits to collaboration that have financial benefits to the company, as Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR found. “Companies that readily share information across departments tend to see greater efficiencies and higher staff morale,” he writes at HR Daily Advisor. “Providing others with insight into processes also helps them understand the time or resources needed for various cross-department initiatives.”
Higher morale leads to lower turnover rates, while better understanding of time and resources means your team will be able to stay on budget and on time more often.
Collaboration and Empathy Work Together
While collaboration clearly has benefits to the company, why does it make so many teams give up their individual goals for the benefit of the whole?
Many experts think empathy plays a major role in successful collaboration efforts.
Victoria Crispo found collaboration creates empathy and camaraderie across teams. “When you work across departments and learn each one’s motivations and how it relates to the whole organization, you may gain a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ among you and your coworkers,” she writes at Idealist Careers. “…You also can gain a greater sense of empathy for your colleagues’ work and challenges.”
Danny Wong, co-founder of Blank Label, agrees. “With empathy, folks in different teams may come together to support their respective long-term goals and visions. Collectively, they are better equipped to drive meaningful results for their employer.”
However, Joanna Schloss says collaboration doesn’t just create empathy; it relies on it for future success. “Sharing is just one piece of the puzzle,” she writes at CMSWire. “True collaboration requires more than just a willingness to share. It also requires team members to acknowledge that what they share is inherently biased by the personal lens through which they see the world.”
Through collaboration, teams are able to set aside those biases and approach the problem with a clearer vision. Moving forward, they can apply this vision to other aspects of their careers.
Take Steps to be a Collaborative Leader
Often, it’s up to management to create an environment of collaboration. This can be a delicate balancing act between facilitating communication and letting teams work on their own.
The team at Mind Tools explains that leaders need to inspire teams and work to make sure deadlines are hit, but they also need to know when to take a step back and let the expertise of other departments shine. “Tasks must be tightly coordinated and organized, and yet people must be free to use their talents and expertise as needed,” they write. “As such, being able to adopt an appropriate leadership style is key to leading a cross-functional team effectively.”
This balancing act is actually an opportunity for managers to watch their employees grow.
While taking a back seat helps, it’s still the role of the manager to motivate. In an article for Content Marketing Institute, Anthony Gaenzle reminds team leaders to make sure their teams feel valued, especially because they’re going out of their departments to help you. “While you may have led the team, you likely were only able to accomplish your goals because of the team’s efforts,” he says. “If you want to see similar success in future efforts, make sure key stakeholders and others are aware of how valuable their efforts were.”
Further, when your team does want to make changes, listen and apply them as long as the concept makes sense. Heather Huhman, Gen Y Career Expert, says employees need to be heard if they’re going to collaborate with others.
“Give employees the opportunity to provide leaders feedback, and vice versa,” Huhman writes. “This two-way communication is important to building relationships. Spend some time learning about employee wins and struggles firsthand.”
Keep in mind the manager is also the first line of defense when problems arise between two departments.
Encourage Employees to Work Together
The biggest problem many managers face is employees failing to collaborate. Whether the distance is because of professional or personal reasons, all parties need to come together to find a solution.
Paul McDonald, senior executive director with Robert Half, found the biggest challenge to cross-departmental collaboration is conflicting personalities. As a solution, he emphasizes the need for team diversity and training to work with different personality types.
“An awareness of different personality types — and a respect for each — is a critical component of collaboration,” he writes. “In fact, team diversity is often recognized as an important ingredient in invigorating workplace environments.”
Fortunately, collaboration becomes easier when employees have the right training to listen and respect others. Tom Hickey at Teamwork.com encourages teams to be diplomatic when collaborating on a project: “A negative reaction [to an idea] will not only inhibit your team member from making future suggestions, but will also send a signal that opposing views aren’t tolerated.
“Remember, every interaction is an opportunity to increase/decrease trust.”
Even if you disagree on an idea, hearing the person out offers a basic level of respect that you will want during your pitch. It will also keep the flow of the meeting positive and productive.
Executive coach Peter Barron Stark warns managers that fail to collaborate could be a symptom of a bigger problem. “Improving cross-departmental teamwork creates change that deeply impacts the culture of your organization,” he says. “People will feel uncomfortable being forced to work with team members they have been able to avoid in the past.
“…Remember, dysfunctional teams will do anything humanly possible not to meet.”
If there’s a toxic work environment, you may need to meet with employees and teams as a whole to understand the root of the problems.
Remove Language and Jargon Barriers
If the collaboration problems aren’t personal, they may be lingual. Teams that doesn’t understand each other’s processes or worlds can easily get frustrated with each other and worry the other team is shirking their responsibilities.
Dana Manciagli, Career Change Expert, offers ways to break down jargon that separates different teams. “The trick here is learning how to convey information in terms that co-workers outside of your department will be able to easily understand,” Manciagli says. “Honing your soft skills can help with that … to get your point across clearly.”
Admittedly, some departments have more jargon that others. New Horizons Learning Solutions created a guide specifically for IT departments, which tend to have have the most complex jargon. They recommend cross-training for both parties to aid in solving their own problems and understanding how the IT department approaches challenges each day.
“Nothing provides a better appreciation of the work someone else does like doing it yourself,” the New Horizons team writes. “That’s why managers may want to provide some IT training for the rest of the office and business training for the IT team … going over the basics could go a long way in improving the team dynamics.”
Kathy Klotz-Guest, speaker on humanizing corporate voices, offers advice on turning “jargon-monoxide poisoning” into actual communication: “People use certain words for a reason — because they have meaning for them. … Weave some of those often used [words] into your language. It demonstrates that you are listening to your audience and you are mirroring back their needs.”
Departments that work together need to understand each other’s worlds. When they do, teams create the much needed empathy that leads to collaboration.
Collaboration across departments requires both teams to want to work together. If one team is out for their own glory or refuses to help the other, the collaboration will collapse, and work won’t get done. However, when there is a team mentality and a culture of empathy, almost any group of employees can work together to create something amazing.