how to have better relationships with other departments

If you’ve ever felt the frustration of being stymied by another department’s lack of action on requests from your team, or ever known the feeling of not being able to move forward until your counterpart in another department does her piece of a project, you know why it’s important to have good relationships across teams.

It’s easy to think that other departments should do their job and act on your team’s requests simply because, well, it’s their job to do that … but in reality, the type of relationship you have with managers in other departments can have a real impact on how fast your requests are attended to or whether they’re attended to at all. And there doesn’t have to be any malfeasance in play for that to happen; when a department has to prioritize among a large number of incoming requests, some of them are going to be pushed back, and some of them might be yours. But it’s also human nature that people tend to be more willing to go out of their way to help people who have taken the time to connect with them.

That’s one reason why it can be disastrous if, say, the marketing director hates the sales director; things just aren’t going to be done as efficiently as they would if you had smooth relations between the two.

So, what can managers and organizations do to cultivate the type of cross-departmental relationships that will help teams be more effective? Here are X key ways to go about it.

1. From the top of the organization, leaders should explicitly articulate strong manager-to-manager relationships as something the organization values, reinforcing it from the top on down. That also means calling it out when tension or other problems are getting in the way, and generally having a norm around being responsive, helpful, and collaborative with other teams.

2. As an individual manager, recognize that helpfulness goes both ways. To the extent that you can, prioritizing another team’s work ups the chances that you’ll get the same consideration in return. Of course, that won’t always be possible or practical; sometimes other work will take priority. But when that happens, make a point of filling in the other department about where their project stands, what its likely timeline is, and why. That on its own is a form of helpfulness, even when you can’t complete the work immediately.

3. Be a good colleague when it comes to making your own requests – and ensure that your team members do that as well. If your staff gets a reputation for being pushy or cranky when they need something from another team, you’re going to have a very hard time building a good relationship with that team yourself. Make sure that your staff members are aligned around how to operate when it comes from getting things they need from other departments – and that being courteous and appreciative is part of everyone’s M.O.

4. Don’t assume that things that are mission-critical to you will read that way to others.It’s easy to assume that what’s obvious to you will be obvious to others, as well – but especially when you’re dealing with another team, which has their own vantage point and their own priorities, don’t assume that. Particularly if you need to ask for something to jump the line or otherwise get special treatment, go out of your way to explain the context, so that they have the same information that you do about why the thing is important. It often makes sense to do this face-to-face, which lets you build more of a personal rapport than you can often get from an email. (On the other hand, if the department is known to hate in-person interruptions, factor that in to your approach.)

5. Recognize good work.It’s the same principle that you should use when managing your own team – when you praise something, you’re likely to see more of it. Genuine praise for the quality of work the other team produced can go a long way in making people feel appreciated, and when you make people feel appreciated, they’re more likely to want to help you out next time.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. AndersonDarling*

    I’m glad that none of the tips were to buy cookies and gifts for the neighboring departments. It’s nice to have a cookie, but it doesn’t have the bribery effect that people expect.
    I’d also mention that work gets done faster if you complete your prep before passing it off. Requests that are missing information, are vague, or not in the proper format get dropped to the bottom of the list. It’s not punishment, it’s simply that projects that need an hour investment before beginning will be set aside for projects that can be started on immediately.

    1. Meeeeeeeee*

      YES to the prep. I work in a department that typically is the other side here – the one that is needed to move forward on projects and can’t always get things done as quickly as the other departments want. My biggest frustration is when things change after the work is done because of inadequate prep. There are some departments/people I work with who have now multiple times done this (i.e. they request something, I do the work and send it to them, they respond saying ‘actually we need to change A to B and also include C’). The end result is that I drag my feet on their projects compared to others, because if I delay long enough and they figure out what the hell it is they actually want to do in the meantime, I hopefully only need to do the work once!

      1. Meeeeeeeee*

        (to be clear, I do the work if I have time for it, of course. But if I need to prioritize multiple projects, theirs typically does not start out at the top)

    2. Koko*

      Yep, I tend to adopt a standard format when I make horizontal requests even if the person I’m requesting help from hasn’t provided one. I do the same when assigning work down. I know I’ve given them all the information, it’s all in a single email for future reference, it’s in a format they can use, and it’s visually set apart from any discussion and background information that it might otherwise drown in.

      For horizontal requests that I get I have a wide variety of Excel forms I’ve created for people to fill out that does the same thing – it prevents people from sending me bits and pieces of information as they become available and changing them on the fly and then I have to dig through 15 emails to make sure I’m doing what you wanted me to do. Send me all the information, in one document.

      I do deprioritize requests that come in disorganized in part because if a task looks too big and nebulous and like it contains a lot of smaller steps that aren’t spelled out yet that I’m going to have to figure out, I will almost unconsciously avoid it because it gives me a mild amount of anxiety. I won’t always notice I’m doing it, but every time I think about doing the task mysteriously I’ll find myself engrossed in something else minutes later that was easier to jump into.

    3. copy run start*

      This… if I have to write six follow-up emails to you I’m not a happy camper.

      I also detest answering six follow-up emails, so I try to just send a mega-email with everything I think the other side will need from me. If something needs to be expedited, I try to eliminate any additional steps that may be needed, even if it’s not technically my “area.”

  2. Critter*

    It’s # 1 that I’ve seen most often. The managers don’t seem to have a good understanding of how their departments interact.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      OMG this.

      I work in an academic library. I’m in the archival department which, due to space needs, is located away from the main library facility (this is unavoidable. We’d love to all be in the same building but there is no way to make that happen). The collection development/acquisition department, which is the department with which we share the most work (they choose publications for the main library’s collection and manage the online catalog), despite regular invitations, never comes out to visit our facility, so they have a poor understanding of our structure and routinely make mistakes when cataloging our material. There are different designations for different archival collections: [Archive name] for items that circulate the way the main collection would; [Archive name reference] for things that do not circulate, and [Special Collection Name X, Y, or Z] for rare-book collections donated by specific people/organizations, which are kept intact as discreet collections and also do not circulate. The collections department is unable to distinguish between [Archvive name] and [Archive name reference], mostly, but also regularly either misidentifieds [Special collection X, Y, or Z] in the catalog or gives patrons wrong information. IF they would come visit us, we could show them these things in context, but they won’t.

  3. RKB*

    I’d love to see a similar article about different shifts. For example, I primarily work nights (3 to 11) when my work is absolutely slammed. I resent the morning shift sometimes because despite the fact that they aren’t as busy, they manage not to get much done. However, morning shift resents the evening shift, mostly because we don’t have to get up at 3 AM, but closing responsibilities are significantly less than opening responsibilities. It creates a bit of animosity between the two sets, because people either work mornings (5 AM until 3 PM) or evenings (2 PM until 11 PM) and there’s hardly an overlap.

  4. paul*

    I’m still trying to repair a rift between my department and another one. It was a bad situation, but I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Both departments have contracts through a state agency (the same damn one!), and one of the provisions in department B’s contracts was that *my* department do something with some of the NGO’s they were working with….but we are contractually prevented from doing so by our contract with the same damn agency. I wound up getting a letter from the person at that agency that handles our contract to say we couldn’t, but it’s still a bit awkward.

    1. fposte*

      Ugh. Sounds like this was department B putting a deliverable in because it sounded good and then crossing their fingers. I can roll with dropped balls, but a straight out situation where they’re annoyed about something that was their fault to begin with is a tougher patience challenge for me.

      1. paul*

        No, this was actually a requirement from the state agency, not something the department dreamed up. Which doesn’t make me optimistic as to how well the state agency itself is run.

  5. AthenaC*

    My contribution to this topic is my experience as an auditor – no one likes auditors as a concept, so I start out at an interpersonal disadvantage. And yet I need people to voluntarily agree to do more work so that my project stays on schedule. Yes in theory I have the support of upper upper management (i.e. the people who signed the agreement for me to be there), but they are SO far removed from the rank and file whose help I need to enlist that they might as well not exist.


    My tips are:

    1) Be pleasant. Ask them how their day is going and mean it. Ask about their weekend and share a funny story from your own weekend. Ask if their sister who was in that car accident is out of the hospital yet. Invest 5 minutes to care about them and they will like you. People who like you are much more helpful than people who don’t like you.

    2) Open up your request with a brief description (no more than 1 – 2 sentences) about what you are trying to do and what you have done so far in that direction. Then add in another 1 – 2 sentences describing what you need from them. Say please. If you’re making the request by email, offer to call or stop by in person to discuss.

    3) Finish up by thanking them for their help. It doesn’t matter if they knew absolutely nothing, lied, stonewalled, whatever. Thank them anyway.

    And now you all know everything you need to know to become staff-level auditors. You’re welcome.

    1. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

      This. Plus, if they went above and beyond, a note to their supervisor stating such is always nice.

  6. Ann O'Nemity*

    Alison’s advice is practical and pragmatic. And it’s helpful to people who are trying to get their stuff done.

    But what annoys me in practice is when personal relationships change what should be prioritized. Low priority tasks skip the line because of who’s asking. It’s not good for business.

    1. NW Mossy*

      This is one of the rare situations where you should fight fire with fire. If others are able to use personal relationships to get stuff done regardless of what is best for the business objectively, that’s a signal that personal relationships matter in your organization and cultivating them will help you and your team be more effective. You can try to fight the culture and make it 100% about objective facts, but few of us have both the role power and relationship power to remake an established culture in our image (and I’ve tried!). It got a lot easier for me when I reframed my objectives with other groups from “How do I convince them I’m right?” to “How can I get them to do what I need?” If they’ll do what I need, I don’t care at all whether or not they think I’m right about needing it.

  7. NonProfit Nancy*

    This is so important at our org – and the department I butt up most with is Communications. They want to have final approval of whatever we issue, but they don’t have capacity to help and are a frequent bottleneck. Sigh. I’m not confident that it can be resolved, either. The same dynamic has come up in past organizations too (with marketing/communications specifically), so I’m not sure what that’s about.

    1. Comms vs. marketing survivor*

      I’ve been on the other side of this. I was in communications at a nonprofit, and we had a lot of tension with marketing. From our side of it, their writing was usually terrible, but they didn’t like to relinquish control and weren’t accepting of our edits/rewrites. I don’t know that it’s resolvable, really, because we just spoke different languages (I still shudder at marketing-speak like “impact” and “touches”) and we fundamentally disagreed about what a good message was. I think for it to work, you’ve got to have a strong project manager, and it has to be clear who has the final say.

    2. paul*

      Ours used to be like that, such a pain. The person that ran it eventually left for other pastures and we haven’t ever really replaced them. Much nicer. They’d do things like require a three week turn around to approve anything, but expect you to drop everything no matter what to get them what they needed ASAP. So frustrating.

      1. NonProfit Nancy*

        Yes! The looooong turnaround. That is just not how my department works – we get things on the fly and have to turn them around quickly, unfortunately! Not our preference either, just the client demands that we deal with. Comms is always trying to enforce these strict rules about lead time and “final sign off” that is just – not compatible with our workflow.

  8. orchidsandtea*

    I’d add “ask what little things would be helpful to their process, and have your team follow through”. For instance, IT needs us to put in a ticket, even though it’s faster for me to just call Ferdinand directly since I know he handles email requests.

    Or for my department, since Spouts Customer Service shares an email address with Handles Customer Service, it’s really important to put the customer name in the subject line! Two seconds to type out “Wonka Candy spout request”. Saves much time, gets your request handled faster.

  9. Squeeble*

    I find that one of the biggest sources of conflict between departments is assumptions (on both sides) that one’s own department definitely knows the best way to handle everything and the other department is the one getting in the way. Minus some major dysfunction, the truth generally is somewhere in the middle.

  10. Pam*

    I try to keep on good terms with my opposite types in other departments, so that when I do need something desparately, someone is willing to help. I also try to make sure that I’m not the problem.

Comments are closed.