A common reason why 75% of cross-functional teams fail is that they don’t know how to normalise tension or conflict. Discover how to turn those tensions to your advantage.

When you think of images of high-performing teams, you might see birds flying in unison or rowers pulling hard but smoothly through the water. This imagery portrays all pulling in the same direction. Yes, this sounds (or looks) good – a high-performing team needs interdependence and a common purpose. But this rowing imagery is too simplistic in the complex world of team dynamics, particularly cross-functional teams. And it suggests that you can’t show dissent. 

For cross-functional teams to be successful, they need to be less like rowers and more like a group of people who know what they are doing when putting up a tent (thanks to Liane Davey for the inspiration for the metaphor)! I’m talking about a big tent where you all need to work together to get it up in time before the inevitable summertime British rain arrives. 

To get the tent up without shouting and tears (impossible in my experience!) you don’t need everyone pulling the ropes in the same ; you need everyone to pull in different directions to optimise the tension. No one is pulling so hard that you pull someone off their feet or not pulling enough so that your part of the tent collapses.

It’s the same when it comes to teams in the workplace, you need productive tension to create a high-functional cross-functional team. You want team members to pull their rope hard enough so that they voice their opinions or challenge something they disagree with; whilst checking that they are not pulling too hard and dominating the discussion or not listening to other people’s perspectives. You also don’t want team members to let go of the rope so that they stop raising their concerns or stop contributing to the common purpose. 

Too often in team meetings, the conflict gets out of control and, rather than cooperating, the functions start competing for power, resource and influence. Or it goes underground, and starts to bottle up among team members, showing up in passive-aggressive behaviour and eventually leading to an explosion.  

So if you are going to get multiple functions to work effectively together you need them to optimise the tension, never pulling too hard or too gently. You can learn effective ways of optimising the tensions through Fit To Lead’s founder coaching in the UK.

Every team is unique in its make-up and dynamics. Different teams will require different types of leadership. This can be learnt through team coaching sessions, where everyone is expected to lead and encourage teamwork.

Having explained to the team about the tent metaphor and how tension should be seen as a positive force, here are the five questions to ask to create productive tension within a cross-functional team.

Five Questions to Create Productive Tension

Question #1 – What value do we each bring to the team?

Often we can be so caught up with what we are doing, our own role, what we need and the functional targets that we lose sight of the value our colleagues are bringing to the table. We see our colleagues as blockers to our goals and objectives. “If only they could just hurry up and give me what I want.” 

When you take a step back and reflect on each team member’s unique value, you can start to stand in their shoes, and appreciate what they are doing, and the value they bring to the team.

Question #2 – Who are the key stakeholders for each functional role?

Cross-functional teams often fail because they don’t take a systemic approach i.e. they don’t make their decisions taking into account all stakeholders. Stakeholders might be internal (e.g. other teams, board) or external (e.g. suppliers, customers). 

Pointing out, for each role, who the most important stakeholders are, helps shift the team’s outlook from a linear, siloed perspective to a systems-wide (internal and external) perspective. This encourages the team to take into account multiple perspectives and to optimise the decisions for everyone.

Question #3 – What are the tensions between us that we need to be aware of?

Cross-functional teams bring together teams that are too often siloed. Whilst you would think sales and marketing would be aligned on improving leads and sales, they can often spend more time blaming each other rather than productively working together. The same can be said for sales and product – the sales team may want to keep adding features whilst the product team’s main objective is to create one product for many, not a bespoke product each time. The tension between customisation vs one size fits all. 

Rather than let these tensions bubble under the surface, get them out into the open so the causes of the tensions are clear. That awareness helps you understand where each function is coming from i.e. which rope someone is pulling on. That doesn’t mean you can always have balanced tension. Depending on your priorities you may need to allow your colleague to pull a bit harder for a while to meet the team’s objectives. 

Question #4 – What value do we create together which we couldn’t on our own?

Competitive advantages are sustainable not because of one outstanding capability but because of the unique combination of multiple capabilities. You might try to replicate what your competitor does e.g. get the same set of suppliers, source your new hires from the same universities, use the same sales channels, poach team members from them etc… 

But assuming your competitor is a successful one, their magic sauce will be the combination of all their various key capabilities, not one on its own. It is only when you understand your shared contributions to creating that value or competitive advantage that it can become a reality. 

When you identify which objectives in the company’s strategy the different functions mutually contribute to, this reduces the perception of conflicting priorities and goals.

Question #5 – What capabilities do we need to deliver the value? What do we need from each other to succeed?

Having figured out what value all the functions are co-creating for the company, you next need to identify the key capabilities the team must have to achieve the value i.e. how you are going to do it. The capabilities might be about how the team communicates and collaborates synchronously and asynchronously. Or rhythm of the team meetings – how often you meet, and how you make decisions within the meetings. In a sense, you are creating a set of working guidelines that are key to delivering value. 

Three Steps To Resolve Conflict And Utilise Healthy Tension

Discussing and answering the above five questions will go a long way to normalising tension but it’s worth going deeper into some common issues relating to conflict and the techniques to make it productive. 

1. Clearly define your team goals

The finance department has a gross margin goal, whereas the sales department has a revenue goal. Tempting for the sales team to maximise the top line without regard for the profitability of the sales. Or the finance team to block any new sales contract if it is below their margin target. It is very easy to get into a siloed mentality.

To counteract this, the team must discuss the team’s objectives together and set shared goals as a team. Allowing everyone to contribute to setting the goals will not only improve the quality of the goals but also help each team member feel ownership of them. 

Having set the team’s goals, you need to figure out what each function needs to prioritise to achieve those objectives (i.e. clarity of roles) and then each function must set the sub-goals to be accomplished for the team to be successful. Those functional goals should be shared with everyone so that everyone knows what each person is on the hook for. When people understand their exact role in the process, they are much more likely to work cross-functionally with other teams to complete the work.

The other thing to remember about team goals is that if there is a material change – e.g. a competitor launches a new product – and, it looks like the team goals are not going to be achieved, then it will be necessary to flex the targets the team members are going to be measured on in order to maintain motivation. 

2. Don’t let someone dominate

It is very common for one or two people to dominate a discussion. Going through the set of five productive tension questions can solve this issue but if it hasn’t you must deal with it.

One way is to set clear guidelines on how you have discussions. Get everyone before the meeting or in the meeting to think about their viewpoint on the problem or opportunity, and then ask each team member to share their thoughts without interruption for a limited amount of time, and only then open up the discussion. And if you are the leader I would recommend you always go last so that the room is not swayed by your opinions.

Another thing to consider is to encourage all team members to call it out if someone is dominant. It could be something like, “You’re pulling too hard.”

3. Don’t let someone’s voice go unheard

Two aspects to this. 

Firstly, you want to hear from everyone in the room so all perspectives can be heard. Someone in the team may be reluctant to voice their opinions because they are introverted or they may want to avoid conflict and take the silent route. One tip is the same as the one I mentioned above which prevents someone from dominating the room i.e. pre-read and then go around the room. 

Another tip is to talk privately to the individual about how important it is they start pulling on their rope. Emphasise how you and the team value their perspectives.

The second aspect of unheard voices is to encourage the different function heads to metaphorically bring the key stakeholders into the room (e.g. customers, suppliers, other teams) so their perspectives can be shared too.

Making Conflict Work For You Requires A New Mindset 

Making cross-functional teams function effectively can sometimes feel like a tent that’s too hard to put up. Surely conflict is inevitable. Yes, it is, but as Liane Davey says in her book The Good Fight, “Conflict and tensions are not the antitheses of cross-functional teams, they’re one of the main benefits of them.”

So instead of viewing conflict as something to be ignored, to be brushed under the carpet, as too upsetting or risky to face, it’s time to change your mindset and view conflict as an opportunity to:

  • Express your feelings, needs and opinions
  • Use your influence to make the situation better
  • Make your team aware of something they are better off knowing
  • Prevent the team or company from going down the wrong path
  • Improve the quality of the decision making
  • Challenge the status quo and trigger innovation

So next time you have a cross-functional team meeting, I encourage you not to avoid the tension but to start the discussion about healthy tension and how you can all use it to your advantage. 

If you want to help turn your cross-functional team conflict into something productive or you have another team challenge, my CEO coaching in the UK will help you scale up your leadership and your team, get in touch with me at mark@fittolead.net. Happy camping!