Practical Tips for Breaking Down Silos

Written by Beth Burchill on November 13, 2017

Silo has become a buzzword in the association industry. It almost always carries bad connotations, suggesting a culture that stifles connection and collaboration. Silos are groups that emerge in the workplace, in departments, projects or committees, that become so insular they do not share any knowledge or efforts with other silos who may be working on similar issues.

Assuming siloes have an overall negative impact on our workplaces, we should make an effort to break them down to improve communication and efficiency. We should work out why silos form, how to dilute their impact through communication, and commit to the long-term effort it requires to foster an atmosphere of collaboration. Think of what we could achieve if knowledge was shared, teamwork encouraged and work never repeated!

Identify the root

Take the time to figure out why silos exist in the first place. It could be a defense mechanism for people who don’t trust outsiders to be responsible for their workload. It could be that no one socializes beyond their silos. It could be as simple a problem as your physical office layout.

A big root cause I’ve seen in the past is plain old job (in)security. People want to feel in control of a project to make themselves indispensable. If only one person or team knows how to carry out a task, they own that task, and a ripple effect can happen where everyone throughout the organization or team feels as if they must own a task so that they can prove their worth and keep their job.

If you are in any sort of leadership role, make sure people feel comfortable enough that they can expand a little bit. Even if you are not in a powerful position, encouraging your peers and recognizing their work can boost confidence. Bringing a variety of people into a project widens the scope for creativity. The tunnel of ideas gets narrow because people feel insecure in their value as an employee, but showing staff they are valued gives flexibility for them to zoom out their focus and include others in their work.

Get people talking

It’s basic human nature to enjoy talking to people you already like. We all have people we enjoy speaking with and if work situations can be discussed in those conversations, that’s a big bonus. Never underestimate the interpersonal repercussions of silo culture.

Get everybody from different departments in a room together, from marketing to IT to events, whether via a company social, an all staff meeting, or video calls. Give people a face instead of just an email signature. A personal touch makes the teambuilding process tangible to people: it means that if you don’t reach out to this person or complete this task on time, you will be letting down an acquaintance who you know personally, not a faceless stranger. Empathy motivates people.

Whatever the context, when people get together they will talk about work. It need not be a formal thing. People ask each other about work and talk about projects, and about where they are stuck. Two people who have never met before might find a solution or a more creative process or a whole new idea. Inspiration between people creates space for this. Creating space for your team to be inspired is one of the biggest benefits of breaking down silos.

Be Persistent

This work takes time and ongoing effort. Persistence will mean you see results. Even if no one else is buying into your ideas, you can still make time to chat with people outside of your immediate professional circle and build new relationships. Even if you are the only one trying, keep doing the work. Be your own example in fostering collaboration and connection. Everyone else will see the results and catch up in due course.