Company Culture

7 Ways to Break Down Organizational Silos

Kathleen O'Donnell
November 17, 2023
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On a farm, silos serve a vital purpose. They keep the valuable, freshly harvested crops safe from bad weather and hungry pests so the farmers can make the most use of the food they worked so hard to grow. 🌽

But businesses can have silos too—and those kinds of organizational silos are a big problem. They typically block the flow of information and cooperation between different teams and departments, which can end up damaging your organization instead of protecting it. Instead of keeping out hungry mice, they end up blocking colleagues and coworkers from accessing the knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively. 

So how can you break down these organizational silos? First, you need to understand what they are and how they arise. 

employee confusion

What is an organizational silo?

An organizational silo is when a part of your business, like a team or a department, is separated from other parts. Of course, teams need to have boundaries and clear lines of responsibility and accountability to get work done effectively. 

But unlike silos on a farm, which are keeping crops safe, organizational silos typically impede collaboration between groups. There’s no wheat or corn to safeguard, just skills and vital info that groups tend to hoard as a means of self-preservation or competitive advantage, even though that hurts the organization as a whole.  

Silos are harmful, but most of them are created inadvertently as a result of barriers between people and systems. Understanding the different types of silos, and why they’re so harmful, can help you create a plan to remove them. 

Types of organizational silos

Departmental silos 

Silos in between different departments and teams are the most common types of silos. These silos might look like a barrier between the sales and marketing teams, for example, where each team uses a different system to enter info on leads or different metrics to qualify those leads. While each team might have a good reason for using their own system, the result is a silo of information that prevents the teams from working together to bring in new business effectively.   

Geographical silos 

Silos can also arise between teams that don’t work in the same physical space. This can mean groups that work in a different region of a country or in different countries altogether, as they might share information or work together more readily with the people they see and interact with most. 

These silos can also crop up in remote or hybrid teams—groups might prioritize people who work with them in person, or their fellow remote workers, and unintentionally leave out others. Time differences can be a factor here, or just not being accustomed to working with people remotely. 

Rank silos 

Managers and leaders can also create their own silos, where information doesn’t flow readily to workers below a certain level. Managers can’t share everything with their employees, of course, but sometimes it’s easy to close ranks and these barriers form. 

Channel silos 

Silos are not just between people and teams—they can pop up in between systems and tools as well. If teams are using the systems that work for them without considering how they work for other teams, or how information is shared across those systems, silos can happen because of those barriers. 

employee barrier

The dangers of organizational silos

Organizational silos are common and typically not created on purpose, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. 

Silos can cause roadblocks that hurt your organization’s progress toward your business goals, like providing better customer service. An all-too-common example is customer service teams that don’t have access to important customer information, so your customers have to give the same info to your company again and again to get a simple problem solved. It creates an unnecessary pain point for customers, and it’s frustrating for your reps too. 

Another widespread problem caused by silos is a mismatch in what your company markets to customers and what it actually provides. If your marketing team promises one experience and your sales team isn’t aligned with that messaging, potential customers might get confused or frustrated with the buying experience. Or if your sales team promises something the product team can’t deliver, your new customers may feel misled—even if both teams were operating in good faith.  

Duplicate work is also a harmful effect of too many silos, as two or more teams or departments end up doing the same tasks. Your employees are losing valuable time, and your business is operating less efficiently, as a result of the silos. 

Are there any benefits to silos? 

Talk of breaking down or smashing silos is exciting, because as we’ve seen, they can cause real harm. But—stay patient with us here—silos also arise because they have some benefits too. 😅

Teams and departments do need to have some sort of structure and specialized knowledge, as well as accountability. Plus, silos and structures can help teams form bonds and create a cohesive identity as they work together, refining their knowledge and owning specific tasks. 

And if everyone gets to offer input and expertise on product design, marketing messaging, or anything else, you have the classic “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem where everything gets watered down and nothing gets done on time. 

The problem typically arises not just when a silo appears, but when it’s too tall and rigid to allow for that natural flow of collaboration and information. 

flow of information

7 strategies to break down organizational silos 

1. Build more bridges 

Since silos are not universally bad—in small doses—it’s not always helpful to think of dramatically smashing them down or blowing them up. Instead, counter the most harmful effects of silos by thinking of your efforts as building bridges: across teams, departments, and systems. 

Identifying the biggest blockages and pain points and how to most effectively remove them, with more integrated systems or deeper cross-functional employee connections, can help you get rid of the harmful effects of silos without disrupting their benefits. 

2. Create purposeful cross-team connections 

Employee connection plays a key role in breaking down silos as well; it’s much harder to feel competitive with, or hoard information from, other employees when you know them more deeply as people. This is particularly important for remote and hybrid companies where your employees in different teams and departments might not get much, or any, casual facetime to build those bonds. 

Plus, employees who know each other better are more likely to feel comfortable reaching out with small questions about something outside their own area of expertise, or asking for help on a project or with a system. And those small moments can be critical in destroying larger barriers. 

3. Prioritize psychological safety 

Speaking of asking questions, employees need to feel safe admitting when they don’t know things, need help, or have made a mistake. Psychological safety helps people feel safe to take risks, speak up, and disagree without fearing they’ll face negative consequences. 

A feeling of safety at work leads to stronger performance, more innovation, and a more open culture where teams feel comfortable sharing ideas, working together on new projects, and doing old tasks in a new way. If you don’t provide psychological safety in the workplace, employees may try to find safety by hiding behind silos instead. 

4. Re-imagine internal mobility

Internal mobility is a great silo-buster, as it helps employees move across the organization with lateral moves and rotations. Not only do employees get cross-trained on much-needed skills this way, but they also gain exposure to how other teams and departments think and work. This deeper understanding and knowledge (plus the human connections they build as well) work directly against the spread of silos. 

5. Spread skills across your organization

Spreading your people across teams is great—but it’s critical to do the same with skills. If the only Excel wizards in your org are on the finance team, for example, that creates a silo that employees in your communications department need to deal with when they need help with a distribution list in a spreadsheet.

By cross-training employees on a variety of skills across the company, you not only build bridges over those silos but also create more organizational stability. You can also focus on hiring people who have a broad range of skills where you can, instead of focusing more on narrow specialists for every role. 

6. Facilitate communication

Communication is the best way to break down or bridge over silos, but you can’t simply expect it to happen naturally. Formally agree upon and open up communication channels and set standards for how to use them—like relying on Slack for quick, non-urgent questions and casual employee chats, email for larger questions, and Loom to explain more complicated issues. 

One typical symptom of silos is sitting in too many meetings where the same information is shared over and over. Meetings are not the only way to communicate across teams—in fact, excessive meetings can contribute to those roadblocks and negative feelings between teams if they’re not effective. Work in additional methods of communication that help employees get work done and connect efficiently instead. 

7. Share the love between peers 

Building those employee connections is made much easier when you have a peer-to-peer recognition system in place. Colleagues across teams and departments can recognize and appreciate each other for a job well done, on both cross-functional projects and 1:1 collaborations. This recognition also offers employees visibility into how well other teams are working together and the results they’re achieving, encouraging them to join in. 

Plus, that kind of positive recognition helps you create a culture where collaboration and cooperation—instead of competition— are rewarded. And that kind of culture is one where silos can’t stay up for long. 

Building organizational connections and bridges 

Creating stronger employee bonds and opening up channels of communication are the most important elements of a silo-busting strategy. If you’re looking for a platform to help you connect employees with peer-to-peer recognition, Bonusly’s employee recognition and rewards platform makes it easy for you to build a cooperative and collaborative culture that silos simply can’t stand up to. 

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