Identifying Your Organization’s Unintentional Silos

Think Shift

Imagine that you are the manager of a small sales team. You’ve worked hard to create a streamlined, well-oiled unit. Your team is consistently showing high employee engagement scores, and everyone is focused on the group’s reach goal. Performance is high, and relationships with each other are collegial, making your team stand out amongst the rest of the company. What’s the harm in that?

While an efficient and tight-knit team has clear benefits, it can also develop unintentional silos in your organization.

Silos aren’t inherently negative until they develop communication barriers between teams, known as silo mentality. When groups have difficulty communicating problems or successes in the same company, it reduces the overall efficiency of operations, morale and productivity. Silos appear in different organizational groups and vary depending on the organization, but here are some examples:

Hierarchical Silos

Between employees and managers, nearly 70% of leaders confessed to being uncomfortable communicating with their direct reports. From the same survey, 40% of leaders were uncomfortable giving direct feedback to an employee if they thought the person would respond negatively to it. On the other hand, 90% of employees would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark. Until leaders and employees are transparent and constructive with each other, performance, communication and trust will stay at a standstill.

Geographical Silos

This can develop between offices in different time zones or countries. If your company’s headquarters in Boston, MA sets a company-wide staff meeting first thing in the morning, what will the people in your Vancouver, B.C., office think when they see a calendar invitation for 6:00 a.m. their time? They might accept the invitation, thinking it was a one-time occurrence. Or, they might decide to address it because it’s an easy conversation to have the first time. However, if your Vancouver office begins regularly receiving calendar invitations over lunchtime, outside office hours, or during holidays, resentment can seep in. Constantly bringing up the issue is uncomfortable, so the conversation is avoided in favor of preserving relationships with those people. If geographic groups don’t actively consider their counterparts, conversations in your organization will lower in transparency and collegiality.

Cross-Departmental Silos

A lack of communication and shared information between departments can harm company-wide performance. This can appear in a few different ways:

1. Isolated goal setting: Department goals keep your team focused, especially when employee performance and variable compensation are determined by those goals. They provide an incentive to work together and an opportunity to celebrate achievements entirely dedicated to that department. However, departmental divides can develop if important department problems and successes aren’t company-wide knowledge. If that information is isolated to the department and necessary personnel, how will the organization operate unanimously? And if achievements aren’t shared with others, how do you avoid duplicating that work in the future? Both productivity and collaboration will suffer.

2. Information fractures: If useful information from one department isn’t effectively shared company-wide, productivity will suffer. For example, imagine if your IT department decides to change the way they process incoming service requests. They make an announcement at your morning staff meeting, but your sales department was unfortunately offsite with a client and never got the news. Everyone assumes that someone else will update the absent. As the weeks pass, the IT department grows frustrated as the sales team submits support requests, ignoring the new process. In turn, your salespeople don’t understand why IT is deprioritizing their requests. Although the situation is simple and can quickly be mitigated, this is a reality of many organizations. Personal stories help internalize why the other group is acting that way, and they grow into assumptions that are institutionalized against each department.

Virtual Silos

For your remote employees that work online and call into meetings, silo mentality can develop very quickly. Although silo mentality can grow from many of the situations associated with geographical silos, virtual silos face additional challenges because remote employees don’t have an advocate or others to immediately discuss those challenges with.

Everyone has faced the technical difficulties that disturb video conferencing. If you call a meeting with your local team and a remote team member, how do you react when those technical difficulties freeze the meeting? As the host, you give IT an emergency call, but their initial troubleshooting attempts fail. With fifteen minutes already lost, you choose to continue the meeting without the remote worker. You decide to send the meeting’s minutes, so she can give input afterward. This way, the meeting doesn’t need to be postponed and rescheduled.

While this challenge is expected with remote workers, consider the effect of those actions upon them. Will she feel valuable if the meeting continues without her? If technical difficulties occur often, should she even try to engage in future video conferencing meetings? Why even attend them at all? Unless a conversation occurs between your two parties about a contingency plan or the best option moving forward, the silo mentalities developed can certainly disturb morale and productivity.

Silo mentalities need to be intentionally managed and frequently addressed.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to address silo mentalities in a way that is realistic, scalable and long-term. Before any symptoms of them can be addressed, ensure that all leaders are trained to identify them and regularly work with all staff to develop and encourage higher levels of transparency, collaboration, constructive communication and accountability. Practicing each of those actions consistently can help mitigate the development of silo mentalities.

To address your existing silo mentalities, the best approach will vary widely depending on your specific circumstances. One general approach might be to leverage your unified vision and mission, encouraging everyone to prioritize working toward those common goals above department or office goals. However, all leaders need to be aligned in the company’s organizational narrative and goals to achieve that successfully.

Preserve the trust, engagement and strong communication that come naturally in departments, offices and employee groups but prioritize a unified front. After all, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle.


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