Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

5 Strategies To Free Your Team From Organizational Silos

A few weeks ago, one of my readers left a comment on my blog asking why are there so many silos present in today’s organizations. Since replying to my reader’s query, I thought this would be a good topic to address as a follow-up to my previous piece where I shared a number of actionable steps organizations can implement to garner greater success from their collective efforts.

Now before I discuss how leaders can break down various internal silos that might be present in their organizations, let’s first look at why these silos are created in the first place.

Essentially, internal silos are created out of fear that if a mistake is found or some form of failure is encountered, the organization’s leadership will be interested primarily in finding someone to take the blame. As such, the various teams will isolate themselves to ensure they won’t get lumped with those who are within the leadership’s current focus of finger-pointing and blame.

The other reason silos take hold in organizations is because of that desire we all have to maintain a sense of familiarity; a ‘comfort zone’ that serves to provide feelings of order and consistency in the face of today’s fast-paced and ever-changing marketplace.

Within teams or departments, there is a given set of informal rules, a ‘way of doing things’ that creates this comfort zone because of its relative predictability. When teams have to co-ordinate with other teams or divisions, they find themselves having to deal with how others choose to do things. Sometimes, these differences can be trivial; other times though, they can become the source of an irrational line-in-the-sand battle between teams as they insist on maintaining their way of ‘how things are done around here’.

So what can leaders do to free their teams from these organizational silos? In order to answer that question, let’s look at the specific actions/behaviours which give rise to them in the first place and what measures leaders can take to counter them.

1. Encourage mistakes/failures as opportunities to learn and improve
If we recognize that one of the key reasons for the development of silos is the fear people naturally have for being blamed when things go wrong, the first step leaders need to take is to create an environment where employees are not blamed for failure. The most effective way is to treat failure as an opportunity to peel back the layers and understand why things went wrong in the first place, and what your team can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Leaders can encourage such an attitude or perception within their teams by responding to such situations not by focusing on who was responsible for the problem. Instead, leaders should work with their employees to accurately assess the level of damage, what can be done in the short term to address the problem and what long-term measures they can implement to prevent its recurrence.

2. Communicate a common purpose across divisions
Another common fault for the persistence of organizational silos comes from how the various teams or departments ascribe value to the organization’s collective efforts.

For example, an organization’s R&D team will value efforts that help the organization create improvements or innovations to their product/service line to become or maintain their position as a leader in their industry. The marketing team, on the other hand, is more interested in efforts that help to increase their brand’s exposure and generate new conversations in the various social media outlets about their organization and what they do.

While both departments see inherent value in the creation of new products/services, where they diverge is in what each group defines as being the value from that collective effort. Although each department measures the value differently, ultimately both are seeking to accomplish the same thing – to create something of value for their customers by providing a solution to an existing problem (i.e., the R&D team’s contribution) and then educating their customers on how their offering will provide some improvement or satisfy some need (i.e., the marketing team’s contribution).

That’s why leaders need to communicate to the various departments that while they might differ on what they ascribe value to, their employees still share a common purpose through which they can work together in creating work that’s meaningful to all involved.

3. Redirect the team’s competitive spirit toward external targets
There’s no question that having a healthy competitive spirit in your team can be very beneficial for helping to build and maintain a sense of momentum or drive. Where problems arise, though, is when that sense of competition is directed at beating other teams in your organization. Often this is a result of a lack of appreciation or understanding for how the work being done by other teams impacts the organization’s shared goals or objectives. Consequently, it becomes easier for teams to trivialize the work being done by their colleagues.

As mentioned above, leaders play a critical role in helping the various teams to understand the big picture; of how the various efforts being made by the different teams serve to help the organization as a whole to succeed at remaining competitive in their particular industry. By providing the various teams with a clearer picture of how their efforts are interconnected, leaders can help their employees shift their competitive energies away from one another and towards those their organization is in real competition with.

4. Encourage greater flexibility within and between your teams
As I mentioned above, one of the reasons why silos take hold in organizations is in part due to the tendency of teams to fall into these comfort zones that offer a sense of familiarity, if not also keeping things safe.

When it comes to encouraging more flexibility at work, the focus shouldn’t simply be on how employees go about approaching their jobs. Rather, it should be encouraging team members to be more flexible and accepting of the conditions and resources given by those who they are meant to collaborate with. One way to achieve this is to remind employees that accepting these different approaches doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.

Instead, it means learning to appreciate how every team or department has their own way of doing things; approaches which serve to reinforce their own sense of familiarity and consistency that most of us value in our work environment. With this understanding, it becomes easier for different teams to collaborate as their combined focus will be on attaining their shared goal and not just on the means of how they will go about achieving it.

5. Build trust across your teams/departments
Perhaps the biggest casualty organizations suffer from the creation of internal silos is the loss of trust between teams or departments. After all, if employees from different groups in your organization are ill-informed about the contributions of other members, are afraid that other teams/departments will serve them up to be blamed when things go wrong, and/or if they feel they are in competition with one another for resources, recognition, or the perceived value they bring to their organization, it’s only natural that there will be feelings of wariness or suspicion about the motives of the other teams.

Of course, unlike the previous measures, building trust within your organization is not a short-term process. Rather, it’s something leaders need to commit to and encourage the adoption of by everyone in their organization over the long term. Indeed, by ensuring they fulfill the measures listed above consistently – irrespective of what conditions or challenges their organization faces – leaders can facilitate greater transparency and openness about the goals and motivations that drive the efforts being made by the various teams. This in turn will create an environment where employees can trust both those in leadership and those they collaborate with to focus their collective energies toward a common objective and desire to succeed.

Like weeds in a manicured garden, organizational silos don’t crop up overnight, but work their way in gradually over time, taking advantage of the vulnerabilities and gaps mentioned above that provide them with the ideal conditions to grow and take hold. And like weeds in a garden, if left unchecked, internal silos will suck precious resources away from what you’re trying to grow, weakening your teams’ efforts to make real progress toward achieving their shared goals.

Dealing with organizational silos early enough in their development will ensure that – like those pesky garden weeds – they’re easy to remove and paired with continual monitoring, will prevent their recurrence in what might otherwise be a well-managed organization.

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  1. On September 22nd, 2011 at 1:17 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Solid post. You are right that silos evolve over time, but they do look like weeds. #2 resonated for me being a marketing geek. A long time ago I worked at a major company that we in marketing, relatively new to the company to implement change were always at odds with R&D. 15+ year veterans of the company that we called tree huggers.

  2. On September 22nd, 2011 at 9:48 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim. Lack of familiarity/understanding of the work others do in multi-disciplined environments is definitely a major problem in the development of internal silos. A few years back, I worked in a clinical setting with one team of doctors and a team of nurses. Although we were all there to provide care to our patients, that didn't stop a lot of friction between the doctors, nurses and even my team of clinicians as we jostled over the pecking order of who was more vital to the patient. The reality, of course, is that we were all vital players in the process; the difference was just in what part of the process and what our contribution was to that patient's treatment.

    That's why it's important that an organization's leadership communicate repeatedly not only how the various employees contribute to a shared purpose, but of how the unique contributions of the different divisions play a key role to their ultimate success.

    Thanks again, Jim, for chiming in and sharing your experiences with this.

  3. On September 22nd, 2011 at 5:05 AM Ana said:

    If you have a very big issue of your team falling into their comfort zones, you need to make sure that those comfort zones are stretched as far as it gets. If they have fear from making mistakes and tend to do things "as they are done around here" – make them realize that learning from mistakes is also "how we do things around here".

  4. On September 22nd, 2011 at 9:53 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's a good point Ana, about stretching the comfort zone of your team. The fact is that leaving employees or teams to work within the confines of their comfort zone will lead to complaceny and consequently, an inabilty to effectively innovate to respond to the changing needs of their market. We're seeing evidence of that in many companies which just a few years ago were considered the top in their industry and are now struggling to figure out what direction they should now be going in to respond to those market changes.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion, Ana.

  5. On September 26th, 2011 at 12:59 PM Ana said:

    You are very welcome!

    Your topics and your thoughts are a good "food for thought".

  6. On September 22nd, 2011 at 6:40 AM Ana @ conversion said:

    This is a great post on the benefits of breaking down silos. I love the community spirit and the fact that there is an accountability that is fostered when you encourage employees to see themselves as being a part of one big team.

  7. On September 22nd, 2011 at 9:58 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ana; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. Unquestionably, organizations have much to gain from tearing down and preventing the creation of silos in their workforce. Granted, it's not easy work as it does require continual vigilance and reinforcement of key messages/values by an organization's leadership. Then again, as they say, nothing worthwhile in life comes easy; same rule applies to maintaining a well-managed organization and team.

  8. On September 22nd, 2011 at 2:29 PM david k waltz said:

    I think organizational silos are a function of how the organization organizes (how many times can I use the word in one sentence?). By function (sales, marketing, finance), or by value stream, or geography, just the mere fact that there is a separation will give rise to silos.

    The severity of the problems this causes is where there might be a great diversity, from no-problem-at-all for those groups who practice the great suggestions in this blog, to extremely dysfunctional as a result of many of the causes mentioned in the post.

    I had to do some re-thinking on this topic last week when I attended a conference where one of the speakers stated that silos were useful and served a purpose. If interested, you can read it at : https://treasurycafe.blogspot.com/2011/09/matrix.h

    Nice post, thanks!

  9. On September 22nd, 2011 at 3:39 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi David,
    While there's no question that having diverse departments like R&D, marketing, finance, etc require some form of organizational division to allow relevant information to go to the appropriate groups who need it, the problem is when structure goes before function. Namely, the very purpose of silos is to keep things contained and separate and that's unfortunately what we see in many organizations today. While roles and functions for employees, teams and departments have to be clear and defined, leaders need to ensure that this doesn't lead to stratification and the development internally of the 'us versus them' attitude.

    Thanks David for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  10. On September 27th, 2011 at 11:31 AM @wendykeneipp said:

    Hi Tanveer – great post. This particular topic has been on my mind this week, and you touch on so many key points.

    This idea of organizationally driven silos is what I've been thinking about. Old/established industries without a drive for innovation are often still working in their old silo ways because that's the way it was done. In order to move away from that mindset with a staff who is comfortable with the old ways (which commonly includes fighting and bad attitudes) is challenging and takes a concerted effort from leadership to establish a new company vision and persistence to follow through and make sure the changes take hold. A difficult prospect indeed, and I think often easier to just leave status quo. Certainly not good for business, and thus my pondering on the topic!

  11. On September 27th, 2011 at 6:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Wendy; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

    I agree with you that as people spend more time working in a specific team setting or work environment, the easier it becomes to get entrenched in the mentality of 'this is how we do things here'. And naturally, leaders get a lot of resistance from this group when they come in with ideas of changing that very facet of the work environment. But this is why it's important for leaders to not only create a compelling vision for where they see their organization going, but of providing a context for how their employees efforts and changed direction will help to fulfill that objective. Consequently, it becomes easier to get onboard because employees can see their role in that process and why their efforts would matter.

    As much as all of us have some ambivalence for change, we all have a greater desire to know that what we do matters and that it makes a difference. Bringing that into sharp focus will help to break those silos and encourage employees to see their organization, and their work, in a new light.

    Thanks again, Wendy, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  12. On September 28th, 2011 at 11:55 AM @wendykeneipp said:

    Tanveer, I wholeheartedly agree with you! All of it. I am finding it a continual education process to help others see this. While this (proven) business philosophy is gaining larger ground, it still has a long way to go. I work with folks who sincerely believe that their staff are happy just clocking in and clocking out and don't want anything more. I disagree with them – I think they haven't offered an alternative to find out.

    Articles & discussions like this are necessary to help continue sharing the message that people do, in fact, want more from their work and want to work on successful teams and not isolated silos. We just need to create the environment for it all to thrive. Which takes work. : )

  13. On September 28th, 2011 at 2:47 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I agree, Wendy. In fact, I see this process of bringing such issues to light being similiar to that of leadership, where the goal is not simply to tell others what to do, but to empower them to make it their own vision and helping them to succeed in their efforts. Yes, there will be hold-outs as there will be slip-ups, but perservering through is the surest way toward making it a reality sooner than later.

    Thanks again, Wendy, for building on your thoughts. I appreciate your contributions to this discussion.

  14. On September 25th, 2011 at 2:20 AM Doug said:

    Nice write up Tanveer. I found this blog via Terry Seamon's employee engagement daily paper on .li

    Your first and third points in particular resonate with me.

    #1, most companies say they want creativity and innovation from employees, yet they overwhelmingly punish the mistakes which will undoubtedly emerge from these behaviours. We need to recognise the inextricable link between creativity, innovation, chaos and disruption and create encouraging environments for people to experiment.

    #3 Lots of companies talk about competing. And most of them waste more time competing internally with each other when they should be collaborating for competitive advantage out there – in the market, where it really matters. Many years ago I recall coming across a group of colleagues in a customer premises. They were there to make a pitch and they were arguing about who would say what, who would start the pitch, close it etc. They were competing with each other not the external market. They lost. No surprise – their sense of untogetherness was written all over their faces and their attitudes.

  15. On September 27th, 2011 at 11:06 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Doug; glad to hear you enjoyed this piece. When it comes to innovation, it's important that organizations approach with the right focus; namely, that they're invested in trying new avenues/options to learn and discover, with the understanding that this will invariably lead to a lot of falling down and having to pick yourself back up. If employees know that their organization is not expecting them to achieve immediate success, but instead are looking for long-term growth potentials, it becomes easier for them to present unique ideas which might lead the organization to valuable discoveries and opportunities

    Thanks again, Doug, for sharing your thoughts on this piece; glad that Terry's employee engagement daily paper got you to come and check this piece out.

  16. On October 6th, 2011 at 7:21 AM Dee Donaldson said:

    This article has some wonderful information. It's always great to read and refresh a person’s thoughts on keeping their team motivated.

  17. On October 7th, 2011 at 11:30 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Dee; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

  18. On December 27th, 2011 at 8:16 AM Dondi Scumaci said:

    Brilliant article. Truly appreciate how you reached for the root cause of silos and addressed those with such wisdom. Nicely done! Will be sharing this one!

  19. On December 27th, 2011 at 1:30 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Dondi! I appreciate the kind words. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this piece and I'm grateful to you for sharing it with your various networks.

    Thanks again for the kind words, my friend.

  20. On September 14th, 2012 at 5:36 AM Jfagno said:

    Hi Tanveer, thanks for your brilliant article.

    I've been searching for this kind of article for about 2 hours. I want to train myself to become a good team leader and this article post gave a spark in my mind on what to do to handle my team and I'm very thankful that you've written this.

  21. On September 14th, 2012 at 8:43 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure; I'm glad you found this piece helpful and inspired you on what to do to help lead your team.

  22. On August 31st, 2015 at 10:37 AM Kristopher Goins said:

    Just seeing this now as I was doing some research on this topic. Excellent presentation and solid information. I'll use a lot of this as a base for thinking about the elimination of silos in my work environment.

    Feel free to find my on Linked In – I'd love to see what else you have up your sleeve.

  23. On August 31st, 2015 at 1:09 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kristopher; I'm glad you found this helpful for how you can go about removing silos in your work environment.

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