How to Banish Fear and Loathing Between Departments

Last Updated Mar 19, 2010 9:08 AM EDT

As more project and functional teams are put together across disciplines, divisions and even companies it's vital that everyone pull together for a common cause. That shouldn't be a problem -- after all, we all (supposedly) want the same end result. In the real world, though, we often encounter what a mentor of mine used to call "interdisciplinary xenophobia" -- the irrational fear and distrust of coworkers in other departments.

You might not recognize the term, but you sure know the signs. It's usually preceded by the phrase, "well, you know how THEY are in ... (Sales, Accounting, the Dallas office, Bangalore). The result is a lack of trust and frequent communication lapses that can threaten a project. As the leader, it's up to you to recognize the signs and take steps to overcome the fear and loathing. Here are three steps you can take:

  • Recognize the signs of trouble. While many a true word is spoken in jest, watch for recurring themes among the other team members. If it's a running joke that any request to Dallas will go into the ether never to be heard from, find out what's going on. Here's something to look for: often groups self-select to do tasks. Who is working with whom? Just as in high school, if you see cliques developing (one sign is the same people always volunteering to work together) step in to create new teams and alliances.
  • Reward accomplishments -- especially when they're rare. If you have a person or group that is often disparaged or under-appreciated, and they do something right, let everyone know about it. Shout it from the rooftop if necessary. Let's say that getting information out of IT is normally like pulling teeth, but Lee comes through on time and with the info you need. A group email or post to the team wiki thanking her will send the message that you're watching and aware of her good work. More importantly, everyone else will see that: it's a not-so-subtle hint that the rest of the team should take notice as well. You're quietly saying, "See, they don't ALWAYS miss deadlines."
  • Don't pass notes like an 8th grader. Often you'll know there's a problem between teammates when the path of communication goes right through your desk. Maybe you get asked if you'd "ask so and so to get me this report." While it's certainly faster to just forward the request, you should be coaching the team to work together and approach each other directly. Gently coach team members to talk to each other and only involve you if you can add value. Here's another big sign of trouble: you are suddenly the recipient of a lot of "CCed" emails and you're not sure why. Here's why you're getting them, at least one of the parties doesn't think the other will respond without the threat of the manager knowing about it. Talk (yes talk, not email) to both parties separately and see what's going on. You should only be directly involved if the communication isn't flowing both ways. Help the team get better.
Keeping an eye out for trouble before deadlines are missed and relationships are permanently damaged is one of the most important proactive things a manager can do.

photo courtesy of Flickr user gopalarathnam_v CC 2.0