Our work is filled with little annoyances.
When your emails go unanswered for too long.
When the requests your team makes are met with excuses again and again.
When you feel another team fell asleep at the wheel and there’s nothing you can do.
Or when the opposite happens, and others criticize your team, despite having no idea of what you do.
These are all signs of silo mentality: when information is not flowing between departments as it should. And sure, you can brush this off. You can blame it on the culture, on some over-inflated ego, or on the lack of leadership (classic) as the problem continues to slowly corrode your spirit.
OR you can do something about it, helping your team become more effective as well as increasing your influence!
First, let’s look at what silo mentality is and what middle managers can do about it.
Getting stuck in a bubble
Silo mentality is a business term that has been around for at least 40 years. It's unlikely that it will go away any time soon. The emergence of departmental silos is almost an unavoidable pain companies face as they grow. This will only speed up as more teams move to a remote working environment.
With remote work, team members have less face-time with other teams. There are no more chance meetings, no more serendipitous encounters between employees. In an all-remote setting, any socialization outside the team needs intent and design. At the same time, people are strapped for time as teams need more hours for internal alignments. As employees spend more time talking to their teammates and less time talking to people outside their teams, the silo mentality sets in.
Like a silo stores grain, a department silo stockpiles information and knowledge. They try to operate independently instead of cooperating. Silos create duplicated work, impact workflows, and lower everybody's morale. At its worst, a silo mentality destroys corporate culture and escalates into full interdepartmental wars!
Functional teams often trap themselves in silos. When their goals are unaligned they get entangled in their own fiefdoms and stop seeing the bigger picture. Worse: they fail to see themselves as having a critical role in that bigger picture. It's almost like the team is on a different track than the rest of the company. They feel their efforts don't matter; that they are not appreciated enough. It's no wonder: if the team's view of their scope is narrow... their impact will be narrow as well!
Fighting silo mentality... as a manager
Managers always feel a sense of impotence when it comes to silos. After all, what can a manager do about it? The solution always seems to lie either on the company's structure or on its leadership, blissfully cocooned up in their ivory tower.
There are two kinds of misalignments that create silos:
- Vertical misalignments happen when leadership allows for conflicts between team goals and there's no unified vision
- Horizontal misalignments happen when ideas, information, and resources don't flow between departments.
A vertical misalignment requires the senior management to step up their game. But the horizontal misalignment is something the teams themselves can tackle. If you are part of middle management or even a front-line employee, horizontal misalignment falls under your scope of action.
The biggest hurdle is knowing when you yourself are part of a silo mentality. We often don't notice our own groupthink. If our work is hindered by a lack of collaboration, it's often easier to shift the blame onto the other teams.
We've come up with a quick audit to make sure my team's efforts aligned with other teams' goals.
This helped us become more effective and detect misalignments sooner. We started by listing the other teams we have interacted with in the past two weeks.
For each team, we had to answer the following questions:
- Do you know what their department's mission is?
- Do you know what problems keep them from fulfilling that mission?
- Do you know how they are trying to solve that problem?
- Have you talked to them about these challenges in the past 4 weeks?
These are yes/no answers so I can survey my team and get a measure of how engaged they are outside their bubbles. Each unchecked answer is a warning sign saying my team is losing touch with the outside perspective. By the time we reach groupthink, the team will not only be oblivious but also impervious to outside ideas. Groupthink is intellectual inbreeding.
That's why creating conversations and connections between teams is more important than ever. According to this now-classic study, higher-performing teams seek more outside connections. Their members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
It's also the key to breaking the silo mentality. With more people working remotely, you can no longer rely on simple approaches such as reorganizing where people sit to foster conversations. It's no longer enough to make sure your team is doing their best work. It's also your job, as a manager, to ensure there are conversations taking place with the rest of the company. That's the only way to avoid a silo mentality and harness every resource available in the organization.
It's all about creating conversations
Let's get practical. Here are 5 ideas to increase the number of external conversations.
1. Set a personal example... and talk about it.
The way a manager acts serve as an example of how things should operate inside the team. It's not enough to encourage your team's participation while you don't make an active effort to escape the silo mentality yourself.
Run the audit above and reach out to each department you haven't touched base in the last 4 weeks.
Then bring back what you've learned in your next team meeting. Make this a habit and you'll see your staff will start doing the same.
2. Recreate watercooler moments on Slack or Teams
If your team uses communication platforms like Slack and Teams, it makes sense to recreate serendipity over there.
Public, interest-based channels, like #running or #music, tend to work better than socially focused channels, like #random or #watercooler. The latter usually receive too much noise for people to start meaningful connections.
The problem with relying on Slack for your social interactions is that there's no framework behind it. Unless people with authority sets the example, the rest of the company will see it as a distraction. Plus, this setup usually benefits extroverts, while introverts get stuck inside their bubbles.
3. Use employee bonding apps
Slack apps deliver a better social experience than simply creating Slack channels and hoping for the best. The mere existence of an employee bonding app to your Slack group communicates your intent of using conversations to break the silo mentality.
Apps like donut.com can match random employees for watercooler conversations. With dozen of possible configurations, from creating conversations between different geographies to selecting topics for watercooler conversations, these apps offer a lot to explore.
4. Start a peer mentorship program
As a peer mentorship app, our belief that peer mentorships are a great way to nurture people's internal networks should surprise no one.
Mentoring a peer is like having a stake in their development. It drives relationships beyond the workplace environment. Create several of those relationships and you've created a community around your team.
5. Create new rituals
Rituals provide a sense of connection and continuity to people. It allows a group to express and reaffirm their belief systems. Plus their recurrence makes them habit-forming, and thus a very powerful tool. The corporate environment has many examples of rituals. Some of these rituals break the silo mentality and bring different teams together.
Hackathons, brown bag sessions (when you hold an informal meeting meant to teach other employees about your craft), commemorations, and virtual gatherings are a great way to create new connections and conversations.
As a manager, you can create your own rituals, like inviting other departments to learn about what your team does.
The key to breaking silos and grow your team's influence, without relying on senior leadership, is to make sure your team is out there and talking to people.