Have you ever worked in an organization where departments or divisions don’t get along well? You might assume it’s caused by old grudges or personality conflicts. But take a closer look. It’s often a leadership issue — and specifically when leaders may have allowed or even encouraged their staff to work as a silo instead of a team.
Silos are self-contained units that look out for themselves to the detriment of others. They may do many things well, but collaboration isn’t one of those things.
WAYS TEAMS DIFFER FROM SILOS
Teams look at the big picture of the organization. Silos focus inward. Teams routinely share information. Silos guard it. Teams consider the needs of other work groups. Silos take care of themselves. Teams value reciprocity. Silos value getting what they need. And teams enjoy collaboration. Silos enjoy control.
In the words of your kindergarten teacher, silos don’t play well with others. When this happens, it can affect an organization’s productivity and problem-solving. It can stifle innovation and slow down needed change. It also can increase stress and conflict.
The pandemic and remote work may have helped build silos in our organizations. As people worked from a distance, they lost the benefit of running into one another in common spaces or popping by to talk about topics that might be misunderstood in emails. Remote connections were mostly scheduled and rarely serendipitous. Organic networking took a hit.
That’s not good for business — or for teams. But it is fertile soil for silos.
8 WAYS LEADERS CAN BE SILO-BUSTERS
Whether you built a silo, inherited one or have yet to act as your staffers evolved into that status, you can do something about it now. Silos become teams when leaders change the culture. Here are eight things you can do to bust that silo.
1 Make collaboration a priority. Declare it an essential value in your conversations and presentations. Build it into your job descriptions as you hire. Include it as a performance metric in evaluations and promotions. Let people know that success in your organization is a team sport — and that true superstar performers are those who build a network of positive relationships across the organization.
2 Remove systemic obstacles to cooperation. Take a fresh look at workflow, workloads, scheduling and how easy or difficult it is for people to help others — or even get to know others — without hurting their own productivity. Sometimes, it’s the systems we’ve built that force people to protect their time and resources. We can’t just tell people to cooperate if doing so keeps them from getting their work done well and on time.
3 Check your communication. Do you make it easy for people to know what other teams are up to? Sometimes, people in one area of an organization assume others aren’t working as hard or doing valuable work, because they simply don’t know enough about those other assignments and agendas. How can they find out? Have you created communication channels where they can share news and post kudos or encouragement for other teams?
4 Level the playing field. In some organizations, certain departments or work groups have traditionally been seen as more valuable. Maybe they are revenue generators or in public-facing roles. Maybe they’re folks with more formal education than others. They may be playing by a different set of rules, under the assumption that the rest of the staff is there to support them. Is it time to break down those hierarchical notions by emphasizing the importance of all roles, as well as the value of reciprocity?
5 Create something that requires cross-group participation. It might be an event or project, business or social, but it needs the input of many to make it a success. I was once asked to help solve a silo problem in an organization, so I invented a new program and recruited people from different work groups to help design and execute it. It worked because I trusted their ideas and expertise, provided feedback throughout the process, gave thanks and credit afterward, and made sure our top leadership did the same. Many years later, that program is still going strong.
6 Celebrate and reward teamwork. As you work to break down silos, call attention to your successes, however small at the start. Publicly praise those who are working in new partnerships. Tell their stories. Reward them. Even if your budget for perks is limited, use your spare change to award them a “collaboration cupcake” or a “silo-busting sandwich.” One manager I know who led a graphics department wanted to build better collaboration across groups. She and her team created a funky looking trophy and dubbed it “The Golden Eyeball Award.” They presented it monthly to folks in other departments for being great partners with her designers. It became a hot commodity.
7 Emphasize trust. Silos hoard information because they want control. It’s especially common if they’ve been burned by sharing. Their very preliminary plans or budget figures were circulated by others as done deals, causing misunderstandings. Data was used out of context or personnel information became gossip. If we want groups to be generous with information, they must have confidence that others won’t misuse it. Leaders must emphasize that transparency thrives with trust and disappears without it.
8 Show ‘em how it’s done. The best leaders model the values and behaviors they expect from their staff. Do you have positive relationships with leaders and members of other teams? Do you work to resolve inevitable conflicts with other departments rather than just badmouth them to your people? Do you refrain from pitting your group against others unless it is an agreed-upon, friendly competition? Do you intentionally engage other teams in your decision-making and projects, and even in your social activities? When you are giving credit for a successful initiative, do you automatically include the contributions of other group members?
Here’s hoping that as you read this column, you realize that you’ve already built a high-performing team. Good for you! But if that’s not the case, roll up your sleeves. It’s time to start busting that silo, boss.