Improving Cross-Functional Relationships

Originally posted Jan 22, 2019 • More resources on communication & team dynamics

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Right after the new year began, I started to hear this question from a bunch of my coaching and workshop clients. Whether they were thinking about roles in product, engineering, design, project management, or another business function, it seems to be the season to tackle the fault lines between peer leaders across functions.

When relationships are broken between cross-functional team leads, you might see a few different symptoms:

Below are some approaches and resources to help you repair (or strengthen) these cross-functional relationships. No matter which role you’re in, you’ve got a ton of options at your disposal. It’s time to get curious! :)


Get curious about individuals’ core needs

As we know from Paloma Medina’s BICEPS model, humans have six core needs at work. And when one or more of these core needs feel threatened or undernourished, you’ll see someone resist ideas, pick fights, or check out.

Your Engineering Manager might not understand how they relate to the team’s work, so their sense of Belonging might feel threatened. Your Product Manager might feel like the Tech Lead gets to make all the decisions around team priorities, and their sense of Choice might feel threatened. Your Design Lead might see leaders in the other functions getting promoted according to those disciplines’ career ladders, and feel that it’s unfair (Equality/Fairness core need!) that they don’t have that same opportunity.

You’ve gotta get curious about what’s going on for the folks who are feeling frustrated or showing some resistance before you can figure out how to address those feelings. Though it’s tempting to assume that you know which (if any) of those core needs are undernourished for them, it’s important that you ask lots of authentically curious questions to get to the root of what they’re feeling. Try some of these Deeper Questions that Paloma Medina developed.

Get more specific than “accountable”

Too often when I hear folks talking about this topic, I hear the word “accountable” thrown around without any additional specificity. “Project Managers should be accountable for X” doesn’t really mean much without some extra information.

If you hear people talk about accountability in a hand-wavy way, ask them to get more specific. For example, I’ve heard people say a person is “accountable for X project” when they actually mean:

A RACI matrix can help with this, too, but I still think it’s good to get even more specific for the R and the A. Your homework: ask people to “paint a picture” of what they mean when they use the word “accountable”, so that you can make sure you’re on the same page.

Build a first team mindset

“A First Team mindset is the idea that leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over supporting their direct reports—that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual teams.” — Jason Wong

Jason walks through a bunch of phenomenal tactics to instill a first-team mentality in your organization in this post. At a high level, he suggests:

Though Jason is talking about instilling a first-team mindset within his function, his tips absolutely apply to a cross-functional organization as well. Help your cross-functional leaders see how they could be a part of each other’s Voltron crew (a multifacted crew of support).

Cross-Functional Roles Venn Diagram

Document, document, document

I can’t send a newsletter about cross-functional responsibilities without mentioning the Venn Diagram method. I’ve found that this is a handy approach to acknowledging that these cross-functional roles will have distinct responsibilities as well as some shared responsibilities.

To create your own:

  1. Schedule a meeting with the other leaders on your team to chat about what could go in each circle, what could go in the overlaps, etc.
  2. Gain a shared understanding of responsibilities per role on your team, and document it.
  3. Share the outcome of that meeting with the rest of your team. Answer questions, add clarity, make tweaks as needed.

Woman speaking to camera with video player buttons underneathAre you helping your teammates navigate uncertainty, surprises, and change?

Check out my new Dealing With Surprising Human Emotions video course to find exercises, tips, and homework to support folks' core needs at work.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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