In its original sense, the term “organizational silo” refers to a group of employees that consistently work together. When businesses reach a certain size, these groups often form spontaneously as it becomes more difficult for individuals to stay in touch with what all their colleagues are doing. Alternatively, leaders may impose an organizational structure to make it simpler to manage workflows and allocate resources.
Silos may form for similar tasks (departments) or based on employees’ level of responsibility for the organization (the C-suite). Groups may also develop among those with similar schedules or those working from a particular location. One area of concern these days, for example, is the division between employees working in the traditional office environment and those working remotely.
Are Silos a Bad Thing?
Siloing is not only natural, but it can also have real benefits for an organization. It often leads to greater efficiency or productivity as workers become specialists in their field. It can decrease the time needed to train new employees and create stronger bonds between team members.
So, with all these benefits, why do silos have such a bad reputation? It’s because these natural divisions of employees can lead to a “silo mentality.” In this situation, employees put the interests of their smaller group above those of the organization. Communication and resource sharing breaks down, frequently resulting in a chaotic customer experience. Without good communication, groups can find themselves working at cross-purposes or duplicating efforts.
If left unchecked, groups can develop an attitude of us-versus-them. Then, employees may deliberately avoid sharing information and collaborating or even blame one another for problems or lack of growth. Perhaps worst of all, group members can begin to think alike, breeding a resistance to change and preventing innovation.
How to Break Down Silos
If silos do become problematic for an organization, there are steps that leaders and employees can take to (re)build connections between factions.
Model the desired behavior.
A change from the traditional corporate management style to a servant leadership approach is a great place to start. The approach incorporates several important strategies that can break down or bridge silos.
- Creating and communicating a mutually agreed-upon definition of “success” that is inclusive of the contributions of all employees.
- Developing authentic relationships with individuals at every level of the organization, not just an inner cadre.
- Providing greater transparency regarding leaders’ actions and decision-making processes.
These actions not only break down the horizontal silos that separate executives and middle managers from rank-and-file employees, but they also provide an opportunity to genuinely understand team members’ needs and to personally acknowledge their contributions. Employees, in turn, need to understand and embrace their role in realizing the shared vision for the future and demonstrate transparency regarding their own actions.
Facilitate communication and collaboration.
A breakdown in the sharing of information and talents is the hallmark of a divided organization. Undoing this habit is one of the greatest challenges teams will face because it requires both fostering willingness to engage and implementing systems to facilitate such interaction. These may include:
- Creating opportunities for meaningful interaction and offering incentives to reward outreach to other teams.
- Providing tools for asynchronous communication and collaboration and modifying workflows as needed to accommodate varying response times.
- Implementing a centralized information hub or knowledge management system that all groups and individuals contribute to and can draw upon.
Expect a certain resistance to change in this area. They don’t understand what we do! and What could they contribute? are frequently heard objections. Certainly, there are instances when colleagues from other groups may need orientation to be able to participate fully in joint projects, but that sharing of knowledge is, in fact, the first step toward effective collaboration.
Eliminate barriers to collaboration.
The flipside of providing facilitation is eliminating the barriers to collaboration. These barriers may be individual or institutional, intentional or the product of bad habits. One common barrier is the (over)use of intra-organizational competition. Leaders often believe that a little “friendly rivalry” drives greater productivity and profitability. The damage to bonds between groups, however, usually outweighs any benefits. This is especially true when the odds significantly favor one group over another. For example, a competition to make the largest contribution to the company’s bottom line typically favors those groups directly involved with product or service delivery while marginalizing groups with primarily internal customers.
It is also essential for organizations to realize that “equal” and “same” are not, well, the same. Groups within a larger organization have different responsibilities and need specific types of resources and support to fulfill those responsibilities. Treating every team the same way doesn’t work. In fact, this type of “fairness” is one of the leading drivers of resistance to breaking down silos. Instead, the goal should be to demonstrate equal respect for all team members and their unique contributions. It also means providing resources and support in accordance with needs so that each team and individual has a reasonable chance to succeed.
The Advantages of Making Silos More Permeable
“Breaking” down silos is something of a misnomer. Most organizations – especially larger ones – cannot fully eliminate organizational silos, nor should they. It’s simply not feasible to get a couple of hundred (or thousand) employees together to discuss and debate every decision. Every organization can, however, rid itself of a silo mentality.
The advantages of doing so are many, including:
- Increased cooperation with and appreciation for co-workers
- Greater opportunities to share insights and drive innovation
- More potential for career development, both laterally and vertically
- Less institutional knowledge loss and greater organizational resiliency
- Greater operational efficiency
- A better customer experience
It should be no surprise that many of these advantages are the same as those that lead to the development of silos in the first place. Breaking down silos isn’t meant to be a destructive act. It’s about getting (back) to a healthier, more effective, and more fulfilling way of working with colleagues.