Preventing an island culture – part IV: What managers should and should not do

Posted on December 23rd, 2015

Everyone would agree that cooperation between teams is crucial for effective organizations. However, many organizations are faced with an island culture: teams and departments working in separation rather than integrating and aligning their strategic efforts. This significantly reduces team and organizational effectiveness. In fact, joint research by Harvard Business School and McKinsey shows that of all strategic projects that fail, 75% fails due to poor cooperation between teams.

So, what can an organization do to increase and improve cooperation and alignment between teams? And what role do managers play in this process? In a series of 4 blogposts, Dr. Jeanine Porck shares some important insights of four years of PhD research, which she conducted in collaboration with S-ray Diagnostics. This fourth and final blogpost is about what managers should and should not do in order to increase cooperation between teams.


Focus the team on the bigger picture

Managers have a critical role in creating shared strategic understanding and cooperative relations between employees. They can either foster or prevent the’ island thinking’. Because shared strategic understanding is so important, its creation needs to be explicitly be communicated to managers as a task. They should be encouraged to convince their team members of the importance of cooperation and place the goals of the team in relation to the strategic goals of the organization. Therefore it is important that they recognize that a focus solely on the team distracts from the organization's interests. Additionally, they should provide an open group climate in which the group is open to new information and knowledge.

Teamwork training, progress meetings per department and group activities play a key role in maintaining the "team spirit". But precisely because of this emphasis on the team it is important that managers realize that the organization's interests should not be lost out of sight. Our research shows that if team members identify very strongly with their team the process of creating shared understanding between groups is much harder. If employees feel very strongly about being part of their own team, they will put the interest of the team first in their choices and they can even deliberately refrain from interactions with other teams. Therefore, managers should ensure that their teams also feel part of and identifies with the organization. Our research has shown that groups with strong identification with the organization also have more shared understanding with other teams. A strong relationship with the organization can thus prevent that a strong sense of team spirit gets in the way of cooperation with other teams.

Second, it is important that managers cherish the 'networkers' in their team. Networkers are the people who make contacts outside their own team in order to obtain information, support and cooperation. Also through job rotation employees can start behaving more as a networker. Our research shows that networkers are a very important engine for creating shared understanding between teams, for they understand what is happening in other teams. Managers should therefore provide an open and secure group atmosphere in which the group is open to new information and knowledge from their networker(s). Create an atmosphere in which employees are free to share their knowledge and opinions, even if they differ from other members of the group. This way, groups can benefit most from the knowledge and expertise of all its members and from members of other teams.


Lead by example

Finally, to promote cooperation between teams, managers can and should set the example. Many employees do not really know how to approach colleagues who they do not really know. Or they see other teams as competitors because they stick to the culture and values ​​that they have created within their own team. By showing, as manager, how to be open to the ideas and interests of others, to learn to listen and communicate effectively and from a common interest to work together, you set an example for creating more connections with others in the organization. Thus, managers should show interest in colleagues from other teams and be accessible for others to approach them.

By leading by example managers can inspire their people to seek more contact with employees outside their own team. When your employees move more freely through the organization it is easier to create a sense of belonging and move from an island-culture to a culture of cooperation.


This post is written by Dr. Jeanine Porck based on her PhD dissertation ( Currently she is a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore.

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