The problem of organizational silos hindering collaboration is an old one, but today it has fresh urgency. Fast-changing global markets demand efficiency and agility – two qualities that are hard, if not impossible, to achieve in heavily fragmented companies with weak cross-team collaboration.
Three out of five company leaders in a PwC study say the solution to reaching their strategic goals is collaborating more across functions, paired with faster decision-making. And the benefits of working cross-functionally extend to individuals, not just the organization at large.
Harvard research shows that employees who operate outside their silos learn more, sell more and gain skills faster, while the company achieves higher margins and greater customer loyalty.
The truth is that organizational silos are everywhere and they’re not inherently harmful for organizations. In fact, they’re often necessary. Centralized functions and divisions maintain order and leverage expertise. The problem is when they breed a silo mentality, which is inherently harmful.
Let’s start by quickly defining silo mentality in the workplace and its warning signs, then look at why it’s bad for business. Then we’ll examine the causes of silo mentality and six practical strategies for shifting your employees to a collaboration mindset.
What is a silo mentality, and is there one at your organization?
A silo mentality is an outlook that occurs when divisions or departments don’t – or can’t – share information, resources, and knowledge with anyone outside their group.
If there’s a silo mentality at your company, you’ll recognize these common symptoms:
- Difficulty accessing information and assistance across business units
- Few relationships among employees from different departments
- Task duplication
- Weak alignment around company values and goals
- Turf wars and an “us versus them” approach
- “Not my job” attitude
Why a silo mentality is bad for business
Based on these symptoms, it’s not tough to see how a silo mentality can be toxic. By obstructing collaboration and open communication, it stifles innovation and efficiency. No one can make a fast, informed, data-driven decision alone.
Silo mentality also has a corrosive effect on culture by breeding distrust, conflict, resentment, and low morale. Executives in a recent McKinsey poll ranked siloed thinking and behavior as the number one obstacle to a healthy digital culture.
By inhibiting cross-team collaboration, a silo mentality curbs performance in every part of an organization. In fact, one study found executives view it as the biggest organizational hurdle.
What causes a silo mentality?
Despite the best efforts of leaders, silos can creep up in even the most progressive organizations. It often happens incrementally as internal team bonds strengthen and ties to the wider company diminish.
Other factors that contribute to the rise of siloed thinking over cross-functional collaboration include:
Lack of clarity around priorities
It’s easy for the concerns of the department to become paramount when an organization hasn’t clearly articulated its overarching vision and commitment to cross-team collaboration.
The silo mentality starts with management and inevitably trickles down to company culture. When leaders engage in power struggles and hoard information, employees do too.
Even if employees want to share knowledge, without the right communication and collaboration tools they’ll be stuck in their silos. Email and IM alone, for example, aren’t enough to enable employees to work effectively cross-functionally.
The knowledge economy demands deep expertise in certain areas, but this specificity can become dysfunctional when departments become hyper-focused and isolated. Without an understanding of how their function fits into the bigger picture, their efforts could end up being ineffective.
A dispersed workforce with many remote employees is the norm for many organizations. The resulting language, culture, and time zone differences can nurture a silo mentality.
6 ways to break down silos
This is the tricky part, as any leader who’s struggled to break down silos in the workplace (read: all leaders) will attest. You don’t have to destroy the silos themselves, because they can be useful, but you do have to enhance collaboration, communication, and cooperation among them. This can involve removing communication barriers, changing processes, and adding tools.
Here are six proven tactics:
1. Drive a unified vision from the top
Leadership should take the lead in breaking down silos. Establish a common purpose and goals that go beyond divisional priorities, then reinforce them constantly. Make collaboration an explicit priority and walk the talk.
2. Incentivize collaboration
Set performance targets that can only be achieved by cross-functional teams and reward collaboration. Research confirms that high-performance organizations are up to 5.5 times more likely than lower performers to incentivize collaboration. Showcase individuals and teams who transcend a silo mentality in a dedicated online recognition center.
3. Get acquainted
Help employees learn about the functions of different departments and understand individual roles within them. An online company directory is a simple way to get everyone informed and to extend on-demand access to other groups and expertise beyond a one-time project.
4. Build trust and relationships
First, address any existing conflicts fueling a silo mentality. Then nip any future hostilities in the bud. Then entice people outside their silos with fun, social activities that cultivate camaraderie. For on-site employees, that could be celebratory lunches, communal break rooms or charity challenges. You can also build strong virtual relationships by giving remote workers social spaces where they can interact online.
5. Create cross-functional teams
Cross-functional teams, both temporary and permanent, can break down silos and have multiple benefits for the whole company, from improved productivity to better alignment. Cross-functional training also helps tear down the walls.
6. Provide the right collaboration tools
When different departments are using different tools, or if everyone has inadequate tools, collaboration suffers. Just like your company needs good spots for on-site teamwork, you also need high-quality digital collaboration solutions, from team rooms to forums.