Creating a Collaborative Environment for Your Cross-Functional Team

Cultivating an environment where every voice is heard — what I’ll refer to as a collaborative environment — is crucial to managing productive cross-functional teams. Even if you’ve done the work to foster a collaborative environment, as more companies shift to remote or hybrid models, it’s easy to let teams fall back into isolated silos. As leaders, it becomes our responsibility to ensure effective communication and collaboration are possible in the workplace, regardless of what the workplace looks like. 

Reasons for Division

Before we talk about how to create a collaborative environment in physical and virtual spaces, it’s important to know some of the most common reasons for division within a team. 

  • A lack of buy-in: Team members who feel like a project doesn’t directly benefit them aren’t as willing to collaborate.
  • A lack of trust: If employees don’t trust their colleagues or employer, they likely won’t feel comfortable enough to actively participate in a project. 
  • Competitiveness: Competition can motivate employees to perform better, but too much competition can create a hostile work culture and discourage collaboration.
  • Functional fixedness: While useful in certain circumstances, functional fixedness, or the cognitive bias that limits your brain to perceive something in one way, can limit your creativity and innovation, making it difficult to problem-solve.
  • Groupthink: Similarly to functional fixedness, groupthink can discourage creativity. This psychological phenomenon causes consensus within a group, often leaving people to neglect their personal beliefs and adopt the majority opinion.
  • Poor communication skills: People can communicate without collaborating, but collaboration can’t happen without strong, effective communication. 
  • Poor emotional intelligence: Someone with high emotional intelligence has the ability to manage their emotions and the emotions of others, while those with low emotional intelligence lack empathy and often resort to passive or aggressive communication.

Culture’s Influence on Collaboration

Recognize, too, that an employee’s background and culture impact how effective collaboration happens. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that collaboration benefits people from a working-class background but only when interdependence is prioritized and rewarded over individual success. The “divide-and-conquer” approach traditionally pursued in the workplace disadvantages working-class team members as their strengths often stem from interdependence and collaboration.

How to Create a Collaborative Environment 

If you recognize a lack of collaboration or the silo effect in your team, there are ways that you can create an environment that encourages collaboration. 

1. Align your internal system 

According to a Forbes article on why teams don’t collaborate, a lack of collaboration results from misaligned systems that promote focusing only on your department, rewarding individual achievement, and prioritizing financial outcomes. Evaluate the systems in place on your team. How can you shift them to create a more open environment, focus on long-term success, and encourage mutual accountability?

2. Set clear expectations 

When preparing for a meeting among multiple departments, create an agenda to guide the discussion and to come back to when the conversation slows down or gets too far off-topic. End the session by reviewing and assigning action item(s). This way, teammates know what they need to work on for the next meeting. 

3. Encourage participation 

As a leader, your goal is to ensure that you’ve created an environment that makes participation easy and accessible for everyone on your team. Members with diverse and varied experiences should not only feel welcomed to participate, but they should also be psychologically safe to share and debate their ideas. 

This may include asking questions that encourage dialogue. You might feel inclined to jump in during a lull in the conversation, but instead of answering someone’s question when it was intended for another team member or elaborating on the last speaker’s point, ask questions that invite other team members to participate.

It may also entail providing alternative methods for participation if team members aren’t comfortable speaking up, especially as this becomes more commonplace through remote platforms.  Consider emphasizing online chat programs between departments or creating online polls to collect ideas and feedback anonymously. 

4. Build connections between departments and employees

No company is completely siloed — what one department is working on impacts other teams. Though this interconnectedness will be evident to some, you might have to help others recognize how their roles significantly influence the bigger team. 

A great example of what effective collaboration looks like in the workplace is the concept of design thinking, coined by Tim Brown, the Executive Chair of IDEO. Brown explains design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Because of his design, many companies have implemented it and cultivated a culture of helping.

Assessing New Levels Collaboration 

When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of your strategies to create a more collaborative environment, it’s a matter of observing, recording, and adjusting as necessary. Pay attention to the way your team reacts to the new expectations. Gauge their responsiveness to collaboration and turn that data into helpful feedback. Set up individual review meetings where you can share what you’ve learned, listen to their concerns, and chart a new path to the same destination — a fully collaborative environment for your cross-functional team.