Tear down silos to build up productivity
Winslow Wong 

When it comes to people and their quirks, idiosyncrasies and personality flaws, the variety seems to be endless. Having worked with such tough nuts over the years, I can fully empathise with business leaders and top company executives who have to ensure predictable patterns of disconnection between functional managers such as poor communication, duplication of work, unhealthy internal competition, lack of synergy and short-sighted solutions.

The primary root cause of many of these woeful issues is the ubiquitous silo mentality, a cancerous mindset whereby certain departments or groups do not willingly share information and resources with others in the same organisation. Like grain silos, organisational silos house precious resources that are separated according to type and are difficult to gain access to. While grain silos might work well in housing and protecting grains from nature’s elements, organisational silos can hurt business innovation, efficiency and collaboration. The silo culture, if left unchecked for a prolonged period, can lead to dangerous interdepartmental turf wars, tunnel vision and a conflicted leadership team. In the worst-case scenario, it can even cripple an organisation.

Traditionally, a silo mentality is seen as a top-down issue, beginning with management and trickling down to individual employees. It may also be seen between individuals when the employment situation gets competitive, such as within a commission-based profession where individual performance numbers directly affect compensation. It can also creep in between competing departments, such as marketing and sales, where some assigned duties exist, at least in part, in both departments.


Slow to form, hard to bust

Silos don’t form overnight and neither can they be busted in a day. They often happen without anyone noticing because their formation is slow. They start when employees develop a greater sense of loyalty to their individual team or department and collaboration decreases. As departments become more of a clique, other teams become outsiders and the needs of the organisation as a whole become secondary to the needs of the closest team members.

It’s downright frustrating working with employees who hoard information. Years ago, I worked in an organisation with a permeating silo culture which was largely perpetuated by two department heads who constantly bickered with each other over the most minor of issues. Their petty quarrels soon developed into frequent verbal clashes and in no time “the flame of strife” spread to individual team members and other functional managers who took sides for reasons of their own and not for principles. The dreaded silo mentality slowly set in as both departments tried to outdo each other by hoarding key information and resources, and even refusing to provide support to colleagues. Their siloed mindset eventually affected other departments, and my team was the major casualty as we needed timely input from both parties for much of our work.

The situation worsened over time, leading to higher inefficiencies and redundancies between departments. Turf wars became the new reality as departments fought over responsibilities and ownership, breeding a general sense of unease and a lack of transparency.


Nip it in the bud

Individuals and departments no longer trusted each other to complete their tasks or handle responsibilities, leading to declining staff morale as people feel isolated and insecure. Staff turnover was high, particularly among team members of the bickering department heads, and soon I left too, weary of tolerating the toxic culture.

Tearing down silos is no easy task. In fact, managers find it easier to just ignore them and let people do their own things. Ignoring or turning your back on the pesky situation will only embolden the perpetrators and fortify their siloed way of working. Unpleasant as it may be, leaders need to eradicate the silo mentality as soon as it’s detected.

Breaking down a silo mentality is essential to optimise organisational effectiveness and efficiency. Besides creating a strong organisational culture of collaboration, communication and trust, leaders also need to constantly exhibit the behaviours they’d like to see in their employees. You must be prepared to look past the behaviours that result from silos and focus on the contextual issues that are often at the heart of the organisation. Blaming department inefficiencies and lack of cross-functional solutions on immature employees, lack of basic training, or simply the inability of some employees to click with one another is not going to stop the rot. In fact, such assumptions will create resentment and cynicism among employees, which will only cause long-term harm to your organisation.

Stop playing the blame game but start encouraging a unified front and open up the lines for communicating a powerful vision for change. Besides ensuring every employee row in the same direction, leaders must also be engaged and at the forefront steering the ship. Having a core understanding of the long-term goals, department objectives and key initiatives is a must. A unified leadership team will encourage trust, create empowerment, and break employees, particularly managers, out of the “my department” mentality and into the “our organisation” mentality.

With the over-arching unified vision in place, leaders should quickly determine underlying root problems that may be causing the ripple effect of silos. Once the “elephant in the room” has been identified, ensure your employees are aware of the common goal and how they can make an impact individually and collectively.

The most challenging part is in the implementation. Leaders must think of creative ways to motivate and incentivise employees to achieve the common goal of eliminating silos. Identify the key components that motivate each of your employees and how to communicate this effectively to a wide range of audiences. Once the common goal has been identified, each member of your management team must incentivise their employees accordingly.

Effective communication is key to preventing or breaking down silos. There are many ways to keep everyone informed: use a staff intranet, send regular newsletters and emails, host regular lunch meetings that offer updates, or have video or conference calls. If you’ve staff in multiple locations, visit them to keep everyone in the loop. Be creative and soon you’ll have a united workforce to build up efficiency and productivity.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.