Today, organizations have an abundance of communication tools that keep staff connected: emails and messaging platforms, asynchronous communication tools, and virtual meeting rooms, to name a few. But with so many options — and the complications of workplace dynamics — creating a communication system across large organizations is easier said than done.
Ineffective flows of information in the workplace are referred to as silos. These communication barriers decrease productivity and disengage employees, and they make it harder to reach a common goal.
Breaking down silos and building strong communication and collaboration should be at the top of every manager’s to-do list. It creates a sense of belonging in the workplace and helps people from different departments think outside the box.
When Steve Jobs built Pixar’s first office in 1986, he put the bathrooms in an atrium in the center of the building. Staff was annoyed about having to walk across the entire office to get to the bathroom — but they kept running into each other. Soon, colleagues from different departments would stop to chat and return to their desks with new or improved ideas.
Times have changed, but the importance of communication and collaboration has not. Businesses that efficiently communicate are up to 25% more productive. Plus, 86% of executives agree that poor collaboration and communication cause failure in business.
Communication and collaboration elevate employee performance, and breaking down silos is the first step.
What are the three types of silos?
A silo refers to the hoarding and sealing of information — like how goods such as grain are stored and locked away in real-life silos. Corporate silos happen because of poor communication in the workplace or over-complicated systems.
Here are three kinds of silos:
1. Organizational silos
Most company organizational structures consist of several departments and sub-departments. But companies become organizational silos when those departments are hierarchical or overspecialized, blocking the flow of information.
Problems arise when groups work too independently and pursue individual or departmental professional goals rather than company-wide ones. In a worst-case scenario, they may even fight over resources or purposefully interrupt someone else’s workflow to improve their own.
Imagine a growing startup. The sales team might feel pressure to increase first-quarter sales, so to bring in new clients, they promise features that the engineering team hasn’t finished yet. The engineering team now has to meet difficult deadlines and reschedule their workflow. If sales had communicated their goals beforehand, the engineers wouldn’t have had to be in that position.
2. Information silos
When departments don’t properly record, share, and integrate new information, it creates information silos. Instead of offering open access to data or ideas, they hoard and hide them from others in the company.
For example, a multinational marketing team with different offices that need to communicate with each other might use Slack for messaging, Google for sharing documents, an internal employee portal, a project management application, and so on. But there’s no system to keep everything organized between channels and teams.
In this case, the sheer amount of tools block information sharing. Having different content in different places can create discrepancies, leading to less effective sales, lower employee engagement, and difficulties in combining data.
Another form of information silo is the opposite: individual teams don’t have the proper channels to share information. Managers and departments can’t share decisions or new policies with the people who need to know because the right platforms aren’t in place.
3. Silo mentality
A silo mentality happens at the individual level rather than between teams. Employees, managers, and executives who aren’t team players might be unwilling to share information that doesn’t serve them or fit their goals.
Likewise, burnt-out or difficult employees might not see the value of their knowledge and keep it to themselves. People with a silo mentality don’t freely share ideas and other information, even if it would be useful to the rest of the team.
A large software development company, for instance, might offer a bonus to the employee that hits an efficiency or effectiveness goal at the end of the year. Rather than working together to solve efficiency issues, employees could become secretive and work alone.
How are silos created?
Employers don’t create silos on purpose. In fact, 75% of employers believe collaboration and teamwork are vital. But human dynamics in the workplace are complicated, and silos can pop up naturally.
Here are some ways that silos develop:
1. Communication hierarchies
When information trickles through an organization from top to bottom, there are more opportunities for misunderstanding and mistakes. A mistrust of leadership, toxic personalities, and office politics may delay information or keep it within one circle.
2. Ego-driven management
If a manager doesn’t agree with a decision, is competitive, or feels threatened, they can fail to communicate with their teams or with other supervisors. Even if they don’t mean to, they block the flow of information and create a toxic work environment.
Their teams might pick up on the power struggle between team leaders and create their own problems as a result.
Playing to people’s strengths isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But autonomous departments can form their own goals with too much focus on what they do well, undermining the needs of other departments or the company as a whole.
They can fail to see the bigger picture and miss opportunities for collective growth.
4. Rapid growth
When businesses grow quickly, leaders can get distracted and neglect lower-level communication. New hires might feel out of the loop, especially if a business is bringing on lots of new people at once. This is just another way communication can get delayed.
Are all silos bad?
They’re not all bad. Hierarchies and specialized departments are unavoidable, and it’s impossible to have a perfect business structure. Identifying silos helps teams see what they’re doing wrong and how communication could improve.
Even though silos are negative, they highlight opportunities for improvement.
What happens when you don’t break silos?
Communication barriers hinder an organization’s success, and letting them intensify makes things worse. Here are four consequences of silos:
1. Stagnant businesses
Staff working in departmental silos may become accustomed to them and resist organizational changes. When management wants to rearrange a structure or reevaluate policies, they’ll receive resistance from those staff who fail to see outside of their silo. This prevents growth.
2. Poor customer experience
Employees might interact with customers and clients differently if expectations aren’t clear. Different staff may provide customers with contradictory information or resolve conflicts disparagingly.
If this is a common thread in customer satisfaction, it may be difficult to rebuild their trust in the company.
3. Costly decision-making
Senior management, mid-level managers, and employees make innumerable decisions every day. When they don’t have enough information, the decision-making process gets stunted, which affects company growth and performance.
Poor decision-making makes up for upward of 3% of annual profits, which makes a sizable difference for both big and small businesses.
4. Poor company culture
Communication plays an enormous role in building a strong company culture — an organization’s shared attitudes, behaviors, values, and work norms. In fact, engaged employees are 17% more productive, and 52% of workers will stay in a job where they feel valued.
But silos prevent constructive criticism and positive communication, restricting company culture and failing to show coworkers how valued they really are.
5 tips for silo-breaking
It’s important to detect and eliminate silos as soon as they appear, but avoiding them in the first place is even better. Here are some ways to prevent silos from forming in the workplace:
1. Unify leadership
Stimulating collaboration at work starts with managers who communicate with each other and get on the same page.
While different teams serve unique functions, they’re all part of the company, and high-level management should work with mid-level managers to support the company’s bigger picture and long-term goals.
2. Create cross-functional teams
Cross-functional collaboration with team members from different backgrounds creates more dynamic, creative, and challenging work environments. Access to mixed perspectives means people are more likely to collaborate and problem-solve.
Workplaces that practice diversity and inclusion share information more freely, are resilient to challenges and find solutions faster.
3. Educate, work, and train together
Team training and collaboration build stronger work relationships and spark productivity. One study shows that students retain more knowledge from sharing information rather than passively sitting in lectures. Collaboration builds social connections, improves understanding, and fosters a sense of belonging for everyone.
4. Use more effective collaboration tools
With so many digital tools available, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and create silos by accident. In one survey, 37% of HR workers agreed that too many digital tools caused disruption. To prevent this, stick to a few tools that work and make sure everyone knows how to use them.
Create a best business practice handbook to outline which tools employees should use to message colleagues and track projects. Managers should set clear expectations about how, why, and when to use each project management tool.
5. Institute company-wide communication strategies
To avoid a disconnect between departments — and the decreased productivity that follows — communicate clearly and regularly. Leadership should meet often with managers, and managers should meet often with their employees.
Company-wide chat rooms, open-access documents, and employee surveys keep employees connected with larger team structures. The more often management communicates, the more motivated the entire team will be to share information.
Build bridges, not walls
Building teams with strong communication skills takes time and effort. If your team has poor communication and collaboration skills, breaking down silos might be the answer — even if it’s uncomfortable.
Although it’s a challenging task, companies thrive when information flows and collaboration is encouraged. As departments and employees improve communication, you’ll see changes in attitude, team dynamics, productivity, and well-being of both the company and its workers.