When countries can’t work out their differences, the result can sometimes be a full-scale war. It goes without saying that wars hurt a lot of people, destroy a lot of things, and in most cases set countries back as they attempt to rebuild.
To prevent an all out war, countries usually deploy ambassadors who literally “sit” within other countries and act as a liaison, helping surface and solve conflicts between disagreeing countries before the guns come out.
Political ambassadors prevent wars between countries, and in the context of business, a team ambassador can prevent departmental wars by proactively shaping how their team collaborates with other teams and ensuring positive team interactions.
A War Between Departments
Departments in businesses are very much like different countries, each having their own workplace culture, values and priorities. And just like two countries, two departments can have unresolved differences that reach a boiling point.
This story is familiar: Marketing feels like sales is letting good leads fall on the floor. Sales feels like marketing is not delivering enough leads. Instead of getting frustrated over trade agreements and military bases, teams inside your business get upset when they feel unproductive while collaborating with other teams.
Fortunately, armed conflict is not how teams resolve their differences, but that doesn’t mean teams don’t go engage in war. Backstabbing, tepid collaboration and finger pointing are the bullets fired between teams, and while no physical harm is done, your company’s employee morale, retention and performance all get seriously hurt. By leveraging team ambassadors, your company can be sure cooler heads always prevail and everyone stays productive.
The Role of Team Ambassador
A team ambassador is an employee that acts as the representative of their team on matters that involve interaction with other teams. The person does not need to be a manager, nor empowered to make key decisions. Some roles naturally fall naturally into this category, such as Sales Coordinator (virtually anyone with “Coordinator” in their title).
Much like a nation’s ambassador, the primary job of a team ambassador is to communicate messages back-and-forth that keep teams informed, aligned and away from conflict. They must be a person that both teams feel can be trusted to do the right thing with candid information, otherwise their messages will fall on deaf ears.
For example, a Sales Coordinator acts as the team ambassador when s/he informs the marketing team that the sales reps feel the product one-pager is outdated and poorly-designed. The sales team is trusting the Sales Coordinator will be able to deliver the message in a way that doesn’t bring drama, but rather an updated one-pager that satisfies their needs. Likewise, if the marketing team has a concern, they can introduce the concern diplomatically through the sales team’s ambassador. It’s easier to hear tough news when it comes from someone already on your side.
Team ambassadors are especially useful when there are strong personalities in both teams that clash. Let’s face it, not everyone gets along, and usually everyone in the company knows who doesn’t like who. Your business can’t wait for personalities to soften, so deploying a team ambassador with the right soft skills ensures projects move forward even when relationships are at a standstill.
With all this being said, a team ambassador should never be used as a bandage over truly dysfunctional team dynamics. S/he should not become a replacement for hashing out real differences between employees that should be communicating with each other. The team ambassador’s job is to communicate messages from another team that do not have a natural recipient in their team.
Enlisting a Team Ambassador
Before selecting a team ambassador, remember this is an opportunity to empower and employee to learn new management skills. Try and select someone with leadership potential and in particular, strong communication skills, but with enough experience at your company that s/he has a decent familiarity of internal team dynamics. A person with a positive demeanor who is more constructive than combative is important. A good approach is to ask team members to nominate their own ambassador.
Once your team ambassador has been selected, you need to identify the team(s) that should be approached for proactive engagement. I suggest you choose no more than four teams so your ambassador can be sure to engage different teams each week in the month.
To ensure a team ambassador is successful, s/he will often spend at least one day per week embedded within another team where alignment is critical. Be sure to get permission from other team leaders, as well as desk space if possible. This makes sense, as much like having an embassy in a country, the team ambassador working within a team sees issues develop firsthand, and is readily accessible to discuss matters proactively and constructively.
Once embedded, give your team ambassador employee engagement tools for collecting an aggregated list of issues and ideas from the teams they engage every month. Keep this up, and your company will uncover new issues and underlying issues faster, preventing them from hurting your business.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.