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March 26, 2009 6:40 AM   Subscribe

How can we create more unity among departments at work?

Since last summer I've been working at a medium-sized nonprofit made up of three departments/groups. There isn't much unity among them; it's often an "us" and "them" mentality. This is strengthened by the fact that we dress differently, too -- my department wears business casual, another department usually wears uniform shirts with our logo, and the third group usually wears scrubs. Each group usually keeps to themselves, and sometimes there is even hostility between groups. I'm not a supervisor or manager, but I was wondering what can be done and how I can help. A fun competition among staff, made up of mixed groups? A staff newsletter? (Communication isn't always the best here.) Something else? To complicate things, our sole HR person was recently fired (or quit -- we're not sure). Anything we can do on a limited or nonexistent budget?
posted by trillian to Work & Money (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you can organize a monthly pot luck lunch with a raffle?
posted by spec80 at 7:04 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

People will always want to associate with what they perceive to be their "own group". It is certainly like that at my employer where there are dozens of departments. It is "us" and "them" even though we are all "us" in that we work at the same place.

Please do not do any mandatory HR touchy-feely bonding things. People hate and resent them and it makes it worse most of the time.

What has worked for us is having a larger multi-department informal get together. It was held at a senior manager's home and it was a stand up and mingle meeting with wine and finger foods. Any type of sit down event just ends up with people sitting at a table with their own group. At the very least, this got people to introduce themselves and put names with faces.

Another approach that has had some success here is to target one person from another area rather than the entire department. Is there anyone in the other group who has some connection to your group. There was a girl in IT who went mountain climbing with one of the people in our group. So it was not too weird to invite her along to an informal lunch.

Now she comes regularly and we get the IT viewpoint and hear about their issues. And she has invited a few additional IT people to lunch recently. The groups are getting along much better now.
posted by pixlboi at 7:32 AM on March 26, 2009

Please do not do any mandatory HR touchy-feely bonding things. People hate and resent them and it makes it worse most of the time.

Oh dear God, seconded, thirded, and this is from someone who has worked in HR for decades.

First, of all, what are the advantages to the different groups to be gained from working more closely together? And what seems to be the source of the hostility?

As an HR exec, I wouldn't force departments to get closer interpersonally unless there was a organizational outcome that required it. Too many people who call themselves HR professionals and then engage in this "everyone must love each other" dreck need to find a new job.

That type of forced social activity (especially if everyone is NOT on board with it) can create more resentment. And it rarely accomplishes the real goals that are intended, to have different groups work more closely and agreeably. Though it allows some managers to check that box of "team building activity" that they so desire to cross off their To Do list. Because they aren't using organizational outcomes to measure success, they are using their To Do list.

Here is what I would recommend:

-Answer the question "how are these groups dependent on each other?" (sharing information? handing off job tasks? need to reduce hostility so as not to create a disagreeable work culture? etc.)
-Answer the question, what is preventing them from working together or at least behaving agreeably? What would remove these barriers? Better understanding of why work is divided as it is? Why the dress codes are different? Restructuring the work so the groups are more dependent on one another? Etc.

-Find ways to restructure the work or measurements of work so that the groups are more interdependent and understand the importance of the other groups.

-Identify individual advocates from each group who'd like to cross-train or be a "bridge" to the other groups, represent their group at meetings of the other teams. Someone who is proficient at articulating the work of their specific group and who will be respected by their own group and the other groups.

-Set up a program where members of each group participate in the work of the other groups for a limited period of time to develop professional relationships, identify ways the groups can work better together, and understand the scope of the other groups' work.

-Create measures around work that identify when the groups are working together well and when they're not. Give everyone access to the measures and results, reward the results.

-If it isn't creating a negative work culture that has created consequences (high turnover, client dissatisfaction, etc.), just leave well enough alone. As long as they are behaving professionally and there are no consequences, professionals can initiate their own social activities outside of work.

But mandatory trust walks/ softball games/ happy hours/ ropes courses, etc. should be banned forever. Please God.
posted by jeanmari at 8:48 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

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