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Three Ways to Build Cross-Functional Collaboration and Drive Performance

3 members of a cross-functional team putting the finishing touches on a project.

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Silent judgments can derail critical projects before they begin. Here's how to overcome them.

The tyrannical head of IT. The pompous Millennial project manager. The chatty marcoms, who won’t let the meeting finally begin. Even the best of us fall into the judgment of others when we lack knowledge of who people really are: what they stand for and what motivates them. Such silent judgments really tend to fly at the start of cross-functional projects, and they damage efforts to build peak-performing teams.

People who don’t work regularly with one another take their cues from surface information or, at best, first impressions that were formed months, even years, earlier. This kind of judgment kicks in doubly so for remote workers or third-party specialists joining teams for specific projects. In the absence of any preparation for cross-functional collaboration, meetings start at a team-building deficit.

Individual and Team Burdens

This is a problem because cross-functional teams have all the challenges to success that regular teams do: they need to balance turn-taking in discussion to ensure that multiple perspectives are heard. They need enough trust among members to ensure a good dose of healthy opposition to proposals. The list goes on.

But team collaboration here has additional burdens: it must integrate disparate competencies into solution building, blend company subcultures, and deal with competing priorities from the core job description of every member—priorities which often conflict with the demands of the project. All of these factors make it even harder to define clear priorities (let alone collaborate, meet deadlines, and make progress). 

Cross-functional teams do some of the most important work within your company, work that has the potential to deeply strengthen (or fundamentally weaken) your entire culture. And yet, it’s all too common for cross-functional teams to be thrown together and told to “make it work.” Sometimes, department leaders will employ group activities—such as lunches with a different department or shadow days—to build understanding among functions. But even then, despite new awareness fostered by time spent on shared or foreign turf, feelings of “us vs. them” tend to linger. Knowing more about a group, but not the individuals themselves, just isn’t effective enough to increase team collaboration and deepen discussion. 

Building peak-performing groups through cross-functional collaboration

But what if people started out with insight into others and themselves that allowed them to adjust their approach to one another with the express purpose of a better outcome? Researchers Kelley and Caplan¹ observed that peak-performing groups have members who build consensus, empathize with other members, promote cooperation, and avoid conflict. Corroborating those results, a study by Goleman² showed that the performance of harmonious teams surpassed that of other groups with similar technical but fewer social skills.

But it’s not just harmony that produces results. To achieve the creativity so essential to collaboration, a study in Harvard Business Review³ points to the importance of motivational intensity, something that is hard to bring out in people without knowing what motivates them.

Relationship intelligence cultivates emotional intelligence, but goes even further by giving express guidance on putting it to use in team collaboration.

The behaviors observed by Kelley and Caplan are things people with high emotional intelligence do naturally. But let’s face it; unless everyone has a high EQ, it’s not going to move the needle on group behavior. Relationship intelligence, what we call RQ, lays both the intra- and inter-personal groundwork to increase the behaviors seen in peak-performing groups. It begins by granting people insight into one another—gained partly from an assessment and partly from training—that gives them key information to see themselves in relation to one another.

Relationship intelligence and collaboration

By discussing their similarities and differences openly, team members not only learn to identify their own motivations and conflict triggers, but those of their team members, too. Even the specific sequence a person takes every time they feel threatened or ready to shut down. In this way, relationship intelligence cultivates emotional intelligence, but goes even further by giving express guidance on putting it to use in team collaboration.

Because relationship intelligence is shared (hence the word relationship), it pioneers new behaviors. People are encouraged to adjust their approach to certain individuals and also to self-regulate in situations that previously triggered them. They can even go back to those first impressions that set them off on a poor communication course with a colleague and mend what might have previously been experienced as destructive. 

When adjusting behavior in the name of positive outcomes becomes a shared pursuit, team collaboration becomes more participatory and in-depth, and people themselves become modest, bringing levity where there might have been silence, or worse, blame and defensiveness.

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So, how can you set a course for strong cross-functional collaboration? Here are three practices to bolster the relationship intelligence that builds high-performing teams, whether your team has had specific training or not:

1. Get below the surface

Start your next meeting by going around the table and asking each person to answer the question: What about this project is important or meaningful to you? And if that stumps them, have them answer: What about this project isn’t clear in terms of expectations, contribution to the whole of the organization, or priority-level. 

This is a great way to gain insight into how people think, what they value, and how to help them engage more deeply in the project. By being candid and honest about their perceptions of the project’s value, team leaders and managers build trust among the group. The transparent manager often prevents crises or drama that erupts because these realities are not shared. 

The other plus to this exercise is establishing broader turn-taking in conversation. If there’s one thing multiple studies on team collaboration show, it’s that relatively equal “talk time” brings more of the talent around the table to bear on the project. When a few people dominate the conversation, others (whose collaboration is crucial to success) check out and feel devalued.

2. Add context

Have leaders or representatives of each function or department describe how the project affects their department’s workload, including how it competes with or complements internal projects and priorities.

It is unifying for the team to establish that the project has pros and cons for everyone around the table, so when someone needs help meeting a deadline, they’ll be more willing to give the team a head’s up—or even ask for help (something much more common on high-performing teams than others)!

3. Make time for praise and problem-solving

Start every regular meeting by affirming the contributions of each person (or department/function) as they happen. Then make time for members to bring up any obstacles to their progress so that they can receive support. Not everyone will be comfortable receiving praise or asking for help, and both are incredibly powerful for team collaboration. 

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To find out how to best communicate with each individual type of person, learning tools and personal assessments provide excellent insight that actually makes all three of these practices even more effective—especially for key leaders of the project. Ultimately, they are responsible for developing the type of cross-functional collaboration that will fuel high performance.

The added bonus comes when this kind of team collaboration gets replicated back in home departments or functions, where it gradually builds as a model of interaction for teams across the entire organization. The best teams openly communicate and replace useless judgments with high performers who know how to work with anyone.


  1. Kelley, R., & Caplan, J. (1993). How Bell Labs creates star performers. Harvard Business Review, 71, 128–139.
  2. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.
  3. Kaufman, S. B. (2015, August 12), The Emotions that Make Us More Creative. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-emotions-that-make-us-more-creative

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