It’s one of the most common laments of leaders: “Everything works in silos here!” And it’s typically when an organisation tries to implement some form of transformation that the dark side of organisational silos emerge to get in the way—of change, of innovation, and of collaboration. Silos enter the conversation because they are causing blockages and barriers.
Why do silos exist?
Silos can be both structural and psychological. They are the negative consequence that comes from the inescapable need to manage groups of people endeavouring to achieve a common goal. We have to arrange ourselves in some form of structure if we are to have any hope of succeeding. (Yes, they are called ‘organisations’ for a reason!)
- Efficiency requires that we provide clarity of function and scope to the people within organisations so that tasks can be most effectively carried out
- Clear organisational lines means redundant activities are more easily identified and reduced or eliminated
- Accountability is increased with clear organisational boundaries because scope and responsibilities are clear
‘Silo’ is usually a pejorative term. If you’re talking about silos in your organisation, it means that the steps you have taken to achieve the above benefits have warped and created negative impacts.
However simply restructuring, or declaring organisational dividing lines defunct, doesn’t solve the problem. Humans are not logical creatures. It’s commonly said that we think of ourselves as rational beings who sometimes have emotional moments, but in reality we are emotional beings who sometimes have rational moments. And here’s where silos have some of their most fundamental power.
Silos help us to fulfil psychological and emotional needs for a few reasons:
Psychological safety – it’s been a bit of a buzzword in 2019 but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful concept. Boundaries help to make us feel safe. We know the scope within which we can operate, the people who operate within our orbit, and how the world typically works on a daily basis. In a perpetually changing environment, that’s comfort that’s not to be underestimated.
Silos help protect us from overwhelm. It’s great to say we all need to accept we live in a VUCA world. But the natural human response to uncertainty is to try to make sense of it by drawing lines around it and chunking down the complexity into bite-sized pieces. What people are doing down the hall, on another floor, or in another country might be entirely too much to take on board.
They provide clarity. Roger D’Aprix’s long-standing employee engagement model starts with one basic fact that employees need to know: What’s my job? Clarity about your responsibility and scope means having specific answers for what you do, who you help, where you physically do your work, and what’s expected of you.
Humans are tribal. Our ideas of traditional ‘tribes’ don’t seem to fit with modern day life, but research shows that these instincts are hard baked within us. An experiment has shown that we are more likely to show kindness to a stranger who wears a the jersey of a sports team we support than someone wearing non-sports clothing. (And we’re even less likely to help if they wear the shirt of a rival team!) Belonging to a tribe is a fundamental human trait and comes with advantages and disadvantages. ‘Threats’ to our tribe, whether real or imagined, can be forcefully resisted.
What can you do to break down organisational silos?
Busting down silos isn’t always a simple matter of restructuring or declaring organisational boundaries defunct. As covered above there are just as many personal and emotional reasons silos exist as there are organisational ones. But it’s not an impossible task. Here are five key ways to start building a more collaborative, less siloed organisation.
1. Busting silos can rarely be achieved at a macro level. Give individuals the skills and authority to work across boundaries. Ultimately it will be individuals who will make the difference and they will do so because they feel safe, empowered and skilled to breach boundaries within and around your organisation.
2. It requires leadership modelling and support. Without knowing their actions are supported by leadership, people are unlikely to even try because the perceived risk of failure will be too high. Seeing behaviours modelled by leaders—watching leaders reach out to other teams and organisations—helps to break down fear. It may also inspire.
3. You must be prepared for an honest examination of your organisational culture. Are there structures or incentives that reward competition rather than collaboration? For example, does your cost-centre structure reward a team for keep a customer or client’s work to themselves rather than sharing it around? Do personal incentives through your performance management program encourage people to achieve individual success, even at the cost of organisational cooperation? When collaborating across organisations (or departments/levels of government) are their implicit or explicit barriers in place that will hinder true collaboration? You can’t overcome—or even plan for—barriers and boundaries you’re not aware of.
4. Support the individuals who are crossing boundaries. Working across boundaries can be tough! Change practitioners are often at the front line of this endeavour and it can be hard, wearing and thankless. Dr Jen Frahm has an excellent article about how change managers in particular need to watch for signs of burnout and despair, but it’s equally as relevant to people who feel they are constantly bumping up against organisational walls.
5. Communication is vital. Your internal communication team are going to be essential supports on this journey if you want to improve your chances of success. People can’t cooperate with people they don’t know exist, or collaborate on projects they’re unaware of. Ensuring that cross-functional communication is effective (and that it even exists in the first place!) is crucial.
This week, Dr Jen Frahm and I are excited to launch our new one-day training program, Busting Silos. Busting Silos has been designed to give participants the skills to break down barriers and build better working relationships—both with other teams within your organisation and with external stakeholders. Find out more about it at www.bustingsilos.com.au
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