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silo mentality

Working through silo mentality

Reading time: about 7 min

One of the biggest keys to a company’s success is its ability to communicate among various teams and departments. Bad things can happen when a company doesn’t communicate effectively. 

For example, several years ago a major car manufacturer had trouble with ignition switches. The faulty ignition switches were causing some cars to stall while they were being driven. A group of engineers made decisions about how to fix the problem without knowing that another team had designed the airbags not to deploy when the engine is off. This led to accidents, some serious, and millions of cars being recalled.

Had there been better communication and collaboration between these teams, better decisions might have been made that would have led to a better fix. 

What are business silos, and where do they come from?

Silos are large, cylindrical structures used to store bulk items such as grain. Silos in business are used as a metaphor to describe how employees are divided into different teams, departments, and geographic locations. 

Silos usually form organically as a company grows. Employees are divided by roles, skill sets, rooms, floors, buildings, cities, and countries. Silos can exist in a company of any size but are more common in large companies, especially where there are multiple geographic locations.

From an organizational perspective, silos make sense. They give you an overview of a large, complicated, and diverse system—kind of like an org chart. When you hire new people, silos can give you a better idea of where to put your new hires.

So silos themselves are not the problem. The real problem is silo mentality.

What is silo mentality, and why is it bad for business?

Silo mentality, or silo thinking, creeps in when people develop a sense of isolation. Over time, isolation can lead to employees feeling a greater sense of loyalty to their team rather than to their employer. This loyalty to each other can lead to decreased trust of individuals working on other teams and in other departments. Communications eventually break down, employees are reluctant to share information, and collaboration among various teams is less likely. 

This mentality is often seen as a top-down problem. Senior management might be competitive, have distrust of other managers, or feel reluctant to share information with other departments. These attitudes are eventually passed down to teams and individuals. 

In time, teams lose focus and no longer share a vision with the rest of the company. They develop an “us vs. them” mindset. All of this can lead to a bunch of problems, including:

  • Intense competition: Competition can be a good motivating factor. But it can become a problem when teams stop sharing information and collaborating with others because they want to “win.” 
  • Inefficiencies and redundancies: Working in isolation can lead to unnecessary, inefficient, or duplicated work. This prevents your team from being agile and adaptable. And it slows down progress in the organization and can lead to poorly developed products.  
  • Confusion about responsibilities and ownership: When working with a silo mentality, there is sometimes a lot of buck passing. Employees will say, “that’s not my job” and try to pass off work to others.
  • Not being able to see the big picture: If employees can’t see the big picture, they won’t know where their work fits in the overall project. And they won’t have a sense of how their work impacts work being done on other teams and other departments.  
  • Reduced accountability: When employees are confused about responsibilities and where their work fits with other work, who is accountable when something goes wrong? If they are reluctant to take ownership, they won’t feel accountable for their work.
  • Unease with corporate culture: Silo mentality and isolation can make employees feel like they are working in a vacuum. If they don’t feel like they’re getting the support they need, it can lead to poor decision-making and low morale. They might see the company’s culture as toxic and feel like they need to look for a job somewhere else.  
silo mentality

How can you stop silo mentality from forming?

You might think that you need to tear down silos to keep silo mentality from forming. But that’s not necessarily the best approach because metaphorical silos can be useful.

For example, let’s say you put two different departments such as customer support and software development together in the same space. Customer support can be loud because they are constantly on the phone with customers. The software development team may like a quieter environment to help them to focus as they write code. Putting each team in different locations can help them to do their jobs without distractions. 

But silos can’t be left alone to work in a vacuum. 

If a farmer puts grain in a silo and then doesn’t monitor and maintain it, temperatures will rise and the buildup of grain dust and toxic gases can lead to fires and explosions. So the structures have openings to keep them ventilated and to help control temperatures. In addition, the farmer needs to remove old grain and replace it with new to prevent spoilage and fermentation.

While your business silos are unlikely to literally explode, temperatures can rise and a toxic atmosphere can build up if you don’t monitor them closely and “ventilate” them from time to time. Following are a few tips to help you ventilate your business silos to keep the toxic atmosphere from building to silo mentality.

  • Cultivate a culture of sharing: This is done by creating cross-functional teams that include representatives from all of the different teams working on a project. This invites sharing as the status of each task is reviewed. The team gets a better sense of dependencies, work that still needs to be done, and helps to keep the project on track. The members of this team might work in different silos, but attending meetings together helps everybody work toward the same goals.
  • Improve communication: Make sure that communication is a foundation of your company culture. Employees should feel free to give and receive feedback. Companies that communicate and keep employees in the loop show improved performance, have stronger team unity, and develop better ideas because they are more open to sharing information and collaborating with colleagues.
  • Align employees with company goals: Businesses are generally more productive when their employees understand the company’s goals and how their work contributes to those goals. Every task that is assigned should align with the company’s goals so the employee understands how it fits with what the company is trying to accomplish. 
  • Rotate opportunities: Just like grain can stagnate if it is not moved around, your employees can stagnate if they remain in the same silo on the same team doing the same work for too long. Give employees the opportunity to work on new projects, develop new skills, and work with new people. 
  • Make it visual: Visual information is easy to scan and understand quickly. By creating visual documents such as workflows, org charts, progress dashboards, and timelines can give employees a quick overview of where the project is and where it still needs to go. It can also help them to see dependencies and get a better understanding of their role in the project. Lucidchart has a vast library of templates you can use to build web-based visuals that you can display prominently throughout the company. Because these documents are stored in the cloud, you can update them in real time so employees keep up to date on the project’s progress. 
silo mentality

Just like the cultivation of silo mentality generally comes from the leaders at the top of the company, you need to work top-down to ventilate your silos. Executives need to work well with each other, share information, communicate openly, and make roles and responsibilities clear. This will help your employees to feel like they are all on the same team working toward the same goals no matter which silo they are assigned to.

silo mentality

Collaborate better across silos.

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Collaborate better across silos

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