• Sally Grisedale

Reduce Contempt Among Collaborative Teams

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

“We need to get better at hearing the voice of the other person on our way to making critical judgments,” Christiane Amanpour, CNN.

Have you ever been in a meeting and rolled your eyes after someone said something you thought was stupid? Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s contempt for you. No good ever comes from contemptuous behavior—especially in a work setting—yet co-workers put each other down with surprising frequency.

As someone whose job depends on cross-team collaboration, you know how much pressure there is to deliver results. This requires you to promote the value of the work to teams with parallel or overlapping interests in the same project. It’s important to take steps to remove contempt from the process through improved understanding.

Consider the difference in impact between, “Sally is wrong” vs. “Sally’s idea is wrong.” Taking the personal attack out of the discussion focuses the team’s debate on conceptsinstead of individuals. Contempt for the person with a novel or even an off-base idea never elevates the discussion.

The Problem with Collaborative Teams

“Everyone involved needs to feel that they gain something from the collaboration or feel that what they are doing is a meaningful thing and working towards and common goal,” Essie Salonen, A Designer’s Guide to Collaboration.

All team members need to connect and communicate with one another clearly to achieve a successful collaboration, especially between teams. People can’t collaborate effectively if they don’t know who they are working with, how their own contribution adds value, or what the boundaries are between each team’s workstream and deliverables.

Companies that rely on self-organizing cross-functional teams to solve requirements and solutions tend to focus on logistics, processes, incentives and outcomes. What’s lacking is the opportunity for individuals or teams to explain the roles, responsibilities and value of each team’s contribution. This step is left up to each employee to figure out on his/her own.

How can people succeed if they don’t know whom they are working with, what roles cross-functional team members play, and what differentiates one functional team from the next? A broad lack of understanding can lead to inaccurate assumptions, suspicion of others’ motives and ultimately, contempt in communications that result in further dysfunction.

1. Delineate the Contribution of Each Team

Collaboration isn’t easy, but it helps if each team understands the descriptions of the other teams’ contributions in the cross-functional team effort.

In software development it’s common for several teams to be involved in designing and building a product. For example, product management, engineering, UX design and product marketing are central to product development. Below is team differentiation on a functional basis:

Team Differentiation

  • Product Management (PM) – Sets the product vision and strategy

  • User Experience (UX) – Determines what the client experience will be

  • Engineering (ENG) – Builds the product experience

  • Product Marketing Management (PMM) – Brings the product to market

2. Amplify the Value each Team Creates

As companies grow and invest in more specialists – data science, user research, and content strategy – the new specialists can become targets of contempt when their ideas challenge the status quo of powerful and established teams. It benefits all teams to understand the high-level priorities for other teams:

High Level Priorities

  • Product Management (PM)– Identifies the product value the market needs

  • Data Science (DS)– Uses data analysis to extract value

  • User Experience Research (UER) – Values theneeds of customers

  • User Experience Design (UX)– Enables customers to extract and use the value

  • User Interface Design (UI) – Enables customers to feel the brand value

  • Content Strategy (CS) – Manages content as a valued business asset

  • Engineering (ENG)– Delivers the value and makes it work

  • Product Marketing Management (PMM)– Ensures the value can be sold

  • To avoid contempt sprung from lack of understanding, all parties need to deepen their understanding of the business value that the other teams bring to the table. This can avoid tensions when one team’s focus doesn’t easily align with another’s.

3. Appreciate What Drives Each Team to do their Best Work

The driving force for collaboration is motivation. In a "Workforce" article, "The Ten Ironies of Motivation," Bob Nelson says, "More than anything else, employees want to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem."

In software development, a job well done is when the product succeeds. By extension, in order for the product to succeed, each team needs to succeed. They do so by focusing their attention on the priorities within their own lane while understanding the other team’s priorities.

Product Priorities

  • Product Management (PM)– A product that leads the industry

  • User Experience Research (UER)– A product that meets user expectations, behaviors and needs

  • User Experience Design (UX) – A product people can and want to use

  • User Interface Design (UI) – A product that is attractive, intuitive and responsive to use

  • Product Marketing Management (PMM) – An appealing product that people will buy


When collaboration is the cornerstone of innovation, everyone should feel safe to express their ideas and be allowed to disagree vigorously in a competitive environment without risking contempt from their peers.

Understand that the individual is responsible for learning about the roles, values and motivations across the spectrum of cross-functional team members – your organization won’t do this for you. I invite you, as a leader, to end a culture of contempt and create "be change you want to see in the world" Mahatma Ghandi.

Your Homework

In order to create change in your cross-functional team communications, take a look at the 3 questions below.

1. What differentiates you and your team from other groups?

2. How do you and your team bring value to the business?

3. What motivates you and your team to do your best work?

Work with your own team to provide answers to each question in one or two sentences. Next, share you results with another team and invite them to do the same exercise.Post your answers in a place everyone can see them and update it as things change.

When you model the communication behavior that you’d like to see in your team, others will follow. By taking active steps to spread a greater understanding of the various teams’ contributions and roles, you will ensure that change will come, eliminate the contempt, and elevate the chance for all teams to succeed.

Let me know how it goes!


  • Essie Salonen. A Designer’s Guide to Collaboration. Article Designingcollaboration.com

  • Bob Nelson. The Ten Ironies of Motivation. Article Workforce.com

  • Lisa B. Kwan. The Collaboration Blind Spot. Harvard Business Review April 2019

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