How to Get Different Kinds of People to Work Together

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 8:36 PM EDT

How do you get all your employees to work well together? It's one of management's toughest jobs. Great employees all want to do a great job -- but they may also be such motivated individuals that they forget how much they need their co-workers in order for the whole business to succeed.

You'd think this would be simpler in smaller companies, but it isn't. When I ran my first software company in Boston, we hired fantastic people. They all worked incredibly hard. But it slowly dawned on me that there were chasms between disciplines. (We were too small to call them departments.)

Our sales team was inexhaustible -- but they'd sometimes commit the cardinal sin in software sales: promising features without understanding the technology involved.

The marketing team was wildly innovative -- but they didn't have any real insight when we lost some sales.

The engineering team were silent, studious and calmly confident they could code anything. They just had no idea which feature mattered most. So they coded the stuff they thought was cool.

We worked in a single open-plan office and had little of the bureaucracy that characterizes more established companies. But I came to realize that, as a brand-new business, what we didn't have was time. Everyone was too busy working to get to know each other. There was occasional chatter in the kitchen, but that was about it.

In England, which was where I'd run companies before, everyone went to the pub at the end of the day or the end of the week. But this was Massachusetts: at the end of the day, everyone just drove home.

So we instigated wine and beer Fridays, in which each group had to present a skit that articulated who they were and what they did. Some were neat, tidy, professional presentations; others were raucous mini-soap operas. They were all fun, but most importantly, they were all informative. Sales understood the havoc their easy promises caused, and marketing stopped producing gorgeous but ineffective brochures. Everybody started to talk to each other.

It seemed such a simple device that I was startled by how effective it was.

I used to think my problem was unique to New England and places where the climate militates against hanging around outside with beers or coffees. But I was wrong. A few months ago, my mother-in-law, consulting for a small business in Australia, emailed me to say she'd used the same trick there, for the same reasons and to the same effect. From which I've learned that, while smart people can do good work, they do great work when they take the time to know each other.

What I learned through necessity, academics have now validated: MIT just announced that office chitchat is good for you. According to Alex Pentland's group at the MIT Media Lab, "Individuals who talked to more coworkers were getting through calls faster, felt less stressed, and had the same approval ratings as their peers. Informally talking out problems and solutions, it seemed, produced better results than following the employee handbook or obeying managers' e-mailed instructions."

Photo courtesy Flickr user Scott Maxwell Lumax Art www.lumaxart.com

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.