How Relationships and a Startup Mentality Can Defeat Silo Culture

How Relationships and a Startup Mentality Can Defeat Silo Culture

5 min

Silo culture can have potentially devastating consequences for modern organizations, but when it comes to “busting” silos, there’s an important misconception we should clear up.

Silos aren’t inherently bad—they’re just a product of a work model far less cross-functional than today’s needs. Our understanding of “productivity” revolved around each department handling discrete functions of company missions, with little overlap between teams. Silos would form out of a need for increased specialization and vertical efficiencies within these functions. In sum, silos were great for transitioning product, information, work, or anything else efficiently between different levels of a department’s hierarchy.

Now, however, work needs to be more collaborative and cross-functional than ever. That same efficiency that allows information to travel vertically in silos does not extend horizontally. This is where you see so many of the issues we commonly associate with silos arise. Lack of innovation, deprioritization of important company goals, drops in productivity—these all occur the second work tries to move laterally between siloed departments. Important information gets gummed up in the works and orphaned within an departmental structure that’s not suited to accommodate it. So when we talk about “busting silos,” what we really mean is that we’re trying to preserve those vertical efficiencies while expanding their effects horizontally.

Related: Organizational Subculture: The Good, The Bad, and The Misunderstandings

It’s also important to note that silos aren’t just created by work models, but work mentalities. As with anything pertaining to workplace culture, the attitudes and actions of leaders reverberate throughout the company and become reflected in the way departments operate. If a leader emphasizes unhealthy competition or favoritism towards a particular department, you can bet teams will start to close ranks around themselves. When these unhealthy, exclusionary attitudes pervade the company, teams will operate in more insular fashion, hoarding information and resources to justify their individual value. The irony of course being that these resources would be more valuable if shared across the organization, and can even harm the company if they remain a commodity exclusive to any one team.

So when you set out to silo proof your organization, you need to eliminate mental barriers as well as organizational ones. Here’s where you can begin.

Start with a startup mentality

As a first step, leaders need to wage a mental war against the silo mentality by introducing cross-functional work as a survival need. This requires a complete shift in company thinking. If you’re remodeling the way your organization works together, thoughts like “that’s the way it’s always been” have got to go. In a silo culture, this mentality becomes a justification to resist introducing the collaborative, cross-functional work that will break down organizational barriers.

If you want to break silos, you have to reject this complacency. Instead, you have to reinvigorate the sense of excitement and urgency that defined the organization in the early days to combat this tendency. The innovation and disruption you hear so much about from the startup industry happens just as much out of necessity as it does collaborative thinking. Siloed work isn’t an option for startups because they operate from a vulnerable position in just about every respect. To accommodate for factors like smaller organization size and lack of resources, teams work together collaboratively to ensure the organization’s survival.

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Collaboration can’t be viewed as an option, and certainly not as an inconvenience. It must be seen as a necessity, and to do that, leaders need to clearly define unified company goals, and emphasize the role teamwork plays in accomplishing them. Reinforce these steps with inclusive, broad communication that do not allow room for favoritism or discrimination towards any particular team.

Get everyone together at least once

Anyone who’s a pro at silo busting will emphasize the importance of teams having in-person interactions. As you make the organization more open to the idea of cross-functional work, you need to present your teams with opportunities to capitalize on this curiosity. Insularity cannot be allowed; teams need to learn to interact with one another, and that means getting them together in the same room at least once. These interactions need to be personal as well as professional.

The reasons for the professional conversations are immediately obvious. Teams need a better understanding of other departments’ workflow and thinking, and the immediacy of in-person communication facilitates that. Former CEO of GE Jack Welch has a silo busting strategy called “Work-Out” that revolves around this idea. It’s a method that gathers every team member involved in a process where silos are preventing collaboration and productivity. Over the course of two days, the teams workshop solutions together for improving the process and breaking down organizational boundaries, all the while gaining a greater respect for how their distal colleagues operate.

But personal interactions between team members are just as important. Not only are employees who have friends at work more likely to be high performers, the emphasis on friendly, prosocial communication actively combats the hostile, competitive attitudes bred by a silo mentality. Cesar Garcia understood this when he first became CEO of the then-heavily siloed IRIS International back in 2003. To uproot these attitudes, he set aside “informal time” for everyone in the organization. Through events like all-employee “Bagel meetings” and off-campus manager lunches, Garcia set the table for the new, dynamic ways employees would interact by allowing room for “creative conversations.”

Find the opportunities that make sense for your company: meet and greets between offices to share best practices, cross-function hackathons, team-building exercises, even the company picnic. Getting people together, even just once, is what allows professional and personal respect to grow mutually.

Finally, invest in sustainable communication

The larger the organization, the more at risk it is for silos, and the more important it is to support relationships across the organization. Personal and professional relationships are a strong asset for combating silos, and they need to be sustained through frequent interactions. But getting everyone together every single time you want teams to interact simply isn’t scalable. The time, energy, and resources required to make that happen is wasteful and financially unviable.

Thankfully, a booming enterprise technology marketplace exists to serve solutions on the personal and professional fronts. Seek out the technology that makes sense for your company in both respects, but don’t expect any one tool to meet all of your needs. A CRM tool is not the place where dispersed sales team members will want to share cat pictures and weekend plans. Similarly, your culture social communications platform might not be the best place to strategize your SEO approach. Keep your technology cross-functional, but understand that each tool will have a limited tenor of conversations it can support.

Although silo culture will take time to completely uproot, the alternative simply isn’t sustainable in the modern working world. Cross-functional, collaborative work is now more important than ever for staying competitive in the marketplace, and strong relationships between employees are a valuable inroad for making it happen. 


An edited version of this article was originally published on HR Dive under the title “Got silos? Defeat them with a startup mentality.”

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