Successful Cross-Functional Collaboration: How to Communicate with Other Managers

Working with cross-functional managers as equal partners presents unique challenges. But mastering cross-functional communication also means another person to work through problems with, learn from, and celebrate success with.

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What does cross-functional leadership look like? At Clearlink, it looks like specialists directly managing other specialists (like copywriters, designers, and SEO strategists) who work on larger teams to accomplish something together (like publishing a profitable website, for example).

As a functional copy manager, I help copy personnel improve their craft and advance in their careers. My peers (the website managers of the sites my employees write and edit for) manage site strategy, including the type and amount of work my direct reports do.

Working cross-functionally for the first time? @Clearlink has six tips to improve your cross-functional communication as a manager.

This cross-functional matrix means that individual contributors have the feedback and guidance they need to grow in their careers, and broader teams can count on team members to deliver expertly crafted products. For managers in production, this matrix means we get to work closely with other experts to increase the quality of our products and the efficiency of our teams. But creating productive and collaborative teams starts with solid cross-functional communication between managers.

Here are six habits I’ve learned about communicating in cross-functional teams that will improve your communication skills and increase results on your team.

1. Check Your Ego

If you’re like me, you’re scoffing at your screen. “I don’t have an ego—I’m just often correct.” To which I gently suggest: do a quick inventory.

Step 1 for successful cross-functional communication: check your ego. Learn five more communication strategies from @celestetholen

Honestly evaluate where you’re at in the humility department, and use it as a measuring stick for future interactions with your peers. I find a regular check-in goes a long way toward reeling in my pride and guiding the team toward the best solution—even if it’s not my solution.

Sample Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How often do I get input from others?
  • Do I ask follow-up questions in conversation?
  • Am I secretly bruised or defensive if the group responds enthusiastically to someone else’s ideas over mine?

2. Set Aside Time to Talk with Key Cross-Functional Managers

One of our project managers, Ryan Condrick, works with team members in Salt Lake City, Arizona, and North Carolina. One-on-one meetings are critical for keeping his teams on track and eliminating some of the pains of working in different offices.

“I find the best way to ensure regular cross-functional communication is with standing one-on-one meetings,” Ryan says. “Without proactively designating the time to connect, I find my schedule fills up and then there isn’t time to connect regularly.”

Schedule weekly or biweekly meetings with key cross-functional managers with the expectation that you’ll share the time, speak openly, and give direct feedback. This time helps you hold each other accountable and align on things as they arise (see tips four and five for more).

Feedback can be hard to give, so I’ll ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion. Yes or no questions are too easily brushed over, so get specific and ask open-ended questions instead.

Effective managers know how to give and receive feedback. Ask open-ended questions and listen without interrupting.

Feedback is also hard to receive—“I want to crawl under my desk with a Crunchwrap Supreme with extra cheese” hard sometimes—but to be effective, you have to be able to receive as well as give feedback. When someone gives me feedback, I try to listen calmly without interruption before responding. The three steps in tip six can also help here.

In addition to formal meetings, casual interactions can create opportunities for people to open up. Stopping by a co-manager’s desk for a visit, eating lunch together, or grabbing coffee are low-pressure ways to create candor—something I’ve repeatedly leaned on during conflict or problem-solving.

Sample Questions for One-on-One Meetings

  • How happy are you with our work together?
  • How could I make your job easier?
  • Are you satisfied with my communication?

3. Foster Trust, Not Competition

In many office settings, you compete with other managers for top performance and promotions. If you’re new to the cross-functional matrix, it may take some time to adjust to a mindset of shared success, collaboration, and trust. But as you do, you’ll find opportunities to share new ideas, challenge what’s not working, and tackle problems creatively together.

“Start with an open and safe relationship, align on things that are important in your working relationship, and create mutual buy-in to the vision and shared mission of the website or project.”

Aaron Gunderson, a site director at Clearlink, suggests three things to create trust in cross-functional communication. “Start with an open and safe relationship, align on things that are important in your working relationship, and create mutual buy-in to the vision and shared mission of the website or project,” he says.

As you establish new relationships with co-managers, ask questions that communicate that you want to understand their contributions and goals. Continue to build this type of trust and open communication in your interactions to work together to meet your shared goals.

Sample Questions That Help Build Trust

  • What’s your management style?
  • How do you approach feedback?
  • What do you do in your role and how do you see our partnership working?
  • What ideas do you have for our team that we can work on together?

4. Align on Goals and Announcements

Some goals, announcements, and decisions require alignment with your peers and some don’t. Have a conversation about when you’re good to take the wheel and when you need to align on decisions beforehand.

In general, employee feedback should always be discussed before it is given (see tip 5), but some decisions may be yours alone to make for your team. Maybe there’s a special project you want to work on. Perhaps you want to establish a broader goal for your team or plan an offsite activity. Depending on what you determine as co-managers, these may be decisions you need to discuss together first.

Don’t send mixed messages when it comes to your team goals, process changes, or announcements. Get aligned with your cross-functional managers beforehand.

Taking the time to sync up as managers before making decisions or presenting to the team means you have a space to process news, vet ideas, and find agreement. Christa Baxter, another managing editor at Clearlink, points out that it can cause confusion if you don’t align first.

“Getting leadership on the same page has been crucial,” Christa says. “That way, as we communicate, we’re all aligned and aren’t giving mixed messages.”

Before you communicate a change to your team, make sure you have communicated as necessary and are aligned with other stakeholders. Doing so will help keep things consistent for your employees and help you develop deeper trust in your partnership with co-managers.

Sample Questions to Ask before You Announce a Change

  • Does it affect the broader team?
  • Will process be affected?
  • Does it change how someone may allocate resources?
  • Would I want to be looped in if I were the other manager?

5. Align before Giving Feedback

Feedback about soft skills or productivity is already difficult to give to individual contributors. It can get confusing—or worse, ignored—if relevant managers haven’t aligned.

I’ve had illuminating conversations by pausing on the route to feedback to ask my co-manager’s opinion first. This can be as simple as saying, “I have some feedback I’d like to give, but I want your honest opinion before I say anything.” From there, we can get a clear idea of what the feedback should be, decide together when to give it, and determine who would best deliver it.

Feedback about soft skills or productivity is already difficult to give to individual contributors, and it can get confusing–or worse, ignored–if relevant managers haven’t aligned.

Once you’ve given the feedback, check back in with the other manager and let them know how it went, share any notes, and ask them to reinforce the feedback as necessary.

If I’m not the one giving the feedback, I’ve found I can support the other manager and hold them accountable by checking in after a few days to see how it went. If appropriate, I’ll ask for notes or details along with any follow-up actions they’d like me to take. This usually entails talking to the individual contributor about the feedback and giving them a chance to ask questions.

Sample Questions to Determine Who Should Give Feedback

  • Who observed the behavior?
  • Is this an ongoing issue related to their job performance?
  • Who can best speak specifically to the behavior or skill?

6. Manage Conflict Head-On Together

Inevitably, conflict will arise on your team or between you and another manager. This is when your dedicated meeting time and the trust you’ve built will prove essential.

These conversations take a little extra time up front, but I’ve found that when people have space to frankly discuss problems, it can increase self-awareness and we come to resolutions quicker the next time.

Three things have worked for me in these scenarios:

  1. Seek to understand
  2. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt
  3. Communicate directly

I’ll start by asking questions and commit to actively listening to their entire story. Once I understand their side of things, I can acknowledge their good intentions and actions, ask follow-up questions, and share the effects I see.

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From there, I’ll offer a solution and ask for their ideas. Often by this point, they feel heard and are open to further suggestions and discussion.

Sample Questions to Ask During Conflict

  • Could you share your point of view?
  • What do you see as the root cause of this conflict?
  • What steps can we take together to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

Final Thoughts

Intentionally communicating with your management peers—setting aside time for each other, showing trust in them, aligning on communications, and working through conflict respectfully—is a critical foundation to building an effective team of cross-functional communicators and collaborators. When managers communicate well, team members have the information they need to get their jobs done right and the clear feedback they need to grow as professionals. Plus, you may even make a friend in the process.

Ready to start communicating better with your cross-functional management peers? Share this article with your team.

Celeste Tholen

Celeste has managed teams in a cross-functional environment in both marketing and journalism. For the last decade, she’s helped other people make their copy better and written thousands of pieces of copy herself. In her spare time, she works with the Girl Scouts of Utah and mentors teen writers.

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