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Use Cross-Functional Teams to Offset Organizational Tribalism

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Feb 29, 2016 10:20:23 AM

us-them-we.jpgThe tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct. It is normal for wolves, primates, ants, bees and any social animal to create tribes. They, and we, do it for protection, for comfort and fellowship, and as a way to create social meaning in a chaotic world. Only humans are capable of going beyond tribes, thinking in wider groups. This ability to break out of our clans and work together is central to the rise of modern civilization.

People form tribes within companies as well. We tend to form the strongest relationships with those with whom we work most closely. The “tribes” can be delineated by department, job level, or simply by proximity. This is natural, but allowing organizational tribalism to go unchecked limits the company’s ability to innovate and improve. The creation of cross-functional teams is one way to counter our natural tendency to stick with who, and what, we know. Here’s why they are worth the effort.


I've heard that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump right out. But if you put the frog in cool water and very slowly turn up the temperature, he won’t notice that he’s boiling until it is too late. (For the record, I don’t know if this is actually true.)

A lot of us are like that frog at work. We are so used to the problems, work arounds, and inefficiencies that we face every day, that we hardly notice them.Sometimes it takes someone walking by and saying, “Dude, you’re boiling to death,” to make us aware.

Cross-functional teams serve this purpose. People who aren’t mired in the same situation, people with entirely different points of view, are more able to see the obvious.

Shared Purpose

When we work on improvement projects with clients, we often find that different parts of the organization have no idea how the work they do impacts others. People become so focused on meeting their own goals and objectives that they become disconnected from those of the organization as a whole.

Cross-functional teams create a shared sense of purpose. The results of the team’s work have a wide impact and the exercise underscores the interconnection of every group.

Pooled Resources

A closed tribe can only access the resources and knowledge that it already possesses. A cross-functional team, on the other hand, has access to the resources available to every member. Each team member brings with them their network of connections, past experiences, institutional intelligence and technical know how.  

Diversity of Ideas

I was in a meeting the other day in which a VP of Marketing and a CFO were discussing the employee handbook. It probably won’t surprise you that the marketer’s vision was to do away with the handbook altogether (ala Hubspot) and the CFO wanted to document every possible infraction that could be imagined. In general, marketers think like marketers and CFOs think like CFOs. Diverse approaches, mixed together, are the ingredients of innovation, whether you’re working on an employee handbook or anything else.

Tribalism isn’t a bad thing in societies or companies. But it can be dangerous if it isn’t balanced with efforts that span boundaries and bring people together. Cross-functional teams do both in the name of improvement and engagement.

 The Savvy's Leader's Guide to Employee Engagement

Topics: Employee Engagement

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