By Tanveer Naseer
One of my readers left a comment on my blog asking why there are so many silos in today’s organizations. I realized that this is a great topic to present as a follow-up to my previous piece, where I shared a number of actionable steps organizations can take to achieve greater success from their collective efforts.
Now before I discuss how leaders can break down various internal silos that might be present in their organizations, let’s first take a look at why these silos exist in the first place.
Essentially, internal silos are created out of a fear that if a mistake is found or some form of failure is encountered, the organization’s leadership will be interested primarily in finding someone to take the blame. As such, various teams will isolate themselves to ensure they don’t get lumped in with those currently on the leadership’s firing range.
The other reason silos take hold in organizations is because of the desire we all have to maintain a sense of familiarity, a “comfort zone” that serves to provide feelings of order and consistency in the face of today’s fast-paced and ever-changing marketplace.
Within teams or departments, there is a given set of informal rules, a “way of doing things” that creates this comfort zone because of its relative predictability. When teams have to coordinate with other teams or divisions, they find themselves having to deal with how others choose to do things. Sometimes, these differences can be trivial; other times, though, they can become the source of an irrational and counterproductive line-in-the-sand battle between teams as they insist on maintaining their way of “how things are done around here.”
So what can leaders do to free their teams from these organizational silos? To answer that question, let’s look at the specific actions ad behaviors that give rise to them in the first place, and what measures leaders can take to counter them.
1. Encourage Mistakes and Failures as Opportunities to Learn and Improve
One of the key reasons for the development of silos is the fear people naturally have of being blamed when things go wrong. So, the first step leaders need to take is to create an environment where employees are not blamed for failure. The most effective way? Treat failure as an opportunity to peel back the layers and understand why things went wrong in the first place, and what your team can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Leaders can encourage such an attitude or perception within their teams not by focusing on who’s responsible for problems, but instead working with employees to accurately assess the level of damage, what can be done in the short term to address the problem, and what long-term measures they can implement to prevent its recurrence.
2. Communicate a Common Purpose Across Divisions
Another common fault for the persistence of organizational silos comes from how the various teams or departments ascribe value to the organization’s collective efforts.
For example, an organization’s R&D team will value efforts that help the organization create improvements or innovations to their product or service line to become or maintain their position as a leader in their industry. The marketing team, on the other hand, is more interested in efforts that help to increase the brand’s exposure and generate new conversations in the various social media outlets.
While both departments see inherent value in the creation of new products and services, they diverge in how they define the value from that collective effort. Although each department measures the value differently, ultimately both are seeking to accomplish the same thing — to create something of value for their customers by providing a solution to an existing problem (i.e., the R&D team’s contribution) and then educating customers on how their offering will provide some improvement or satisfy some need (i.e., the marketing team’s contribution).
That’s why leaders need to communicate to the various departments that, while they might differ on what they ascribe value to, their employees still share a common purpose through which they can work together in creating work that’s meaningful to all involved.
3. Redirect the Team’s Competitive Spirit Toward External Targets
There’s no question that a healthy competitive spirit can be very beneficial in helping a team build and maintain a sense of momentum and drive. Problems arise, though, when that sense of competition is directed at beating other teams in your organization. Often this results from a lack of appreciation for or understanding of how the work being done by other teams impacts the organization’s shared goals or objectives. Consequently, it becomes easier for teams to trivialize the work being done by their colleagues.
As mentioned above, leaders play a critical role in helping the various teams understand the big picture; of how the various efforts being made by the different teams serve to help the organization as a whole to succeed at remaining competitive in their particular industry. By providing the various teams with a clearer picture of how their efforts are interconnected, leaders can help their employees shift their competitive energies away from one another and towards those their organization is in real competition with.
4. Encourage Greater Flexibility Within and Between Your Teams
As I mentioned above, one of the reasons why silos take hold in organizations is in part due to the tendency of teams to fall into comfort zones that offer a sense of familiarity.
When it comes to encouraging more flexibility at work, the focus shouldn’t simply be on how employees go about approaching their jobs. Rather, it should be encouraging team members to be more flexible and accepting of the conditions and resources given by those they’re meant to collaborate with. One way to achieve this is to remind employees that accepting these different approaches doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.
Instead, it means learning to appreciate how every team or department has its own way of doing things, approaches which serve to reinforce their own sense of familiarity and consistency that most of us value in our work environment. With this understanding, it becomes easier for different teams to collaborate as their combined focus becomes attaining a shared goal, and not just on the means of how they will go about achieving it.
5. Build Trust Across Your Teams and Departments
Perhaps the biggest casualty organizations suffer from the creation of internal silos is the loss of trust between teams or departments. After all, if employees from different groups in your organization are ill-informed about the contributions of other members, are afraid that other teams or departments will serve them up to be blamed when things go wrong, and/or feel they’re in competition with one another for resources, recognition, or the perceived value they bring to their organization, it’s only natural that there will be feelings of wariness or suspicion about the motives of the other teams.
Of course, unlike the previous measures, building trust within your organization is not a short-term process. Rather, it’s something leaders need to commit to and encourage the adoption of by everyone in the organization over the long term. Indeed, by ensuring that they fulfill the measures listed above consistently — irrespective of what conditions or challenges their organization faces — leaders can facilitate greater transparency and openness about the goals and motivations that drive the efforts being made by the various teams. This in turn will create an environment where employees can trust both those in leadership and those they collaborate with to focus their collective energies toward a common objective and desire to succeed.
Like weeds in a manicured garden, organizational silos don’t crop up overnight. They work their way in gradually over time, taking advantage of the vulnerabilities and gaps mentioned above that provide them with the ideal conditions to grow and take hold. And like weeds in a garden, if left unchecked, internal silos will suck precious resources away from what you’re trying to grow, weakening your teams’ efforts to make real progress toward achieving their shared goals.
Dealing with organizational silos early enough in their development will ensure that — like those pesky garden weeds — they’re easy to remove. Continual monitoring will prevent their recurrence in what might otherwise be a well-managed organization.
Tanveer Naseer is a business coach who works to help small to medium-size businesses develop their leadership skills and team strategies for future growth. He also writes about leadership and workplace issues with a focus on helping businesses better understand and develop their most valuable asset, their employees. Visit his blog at TanveerNaseer.com; you can also email Tanveer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @TanveerNaseer.
Originally published: Oct 31, 2011