“Stay in your lane.”
“Take care of your responsibilities and I’ll take care of mine.”
“That’s my turf.”
I’m sure that each of us has heard these statements declared or made them ourselves at some point within our careers. If your experience is similar to mine, you have heard it far too many times. Over my years in team and leadership development, I have spent a decent amount of time observing and thinking through why we appear to have such a possessive mindset and approach to our work and areas of responsibility.
- Why do we feel the need to keep others out of our business?
- Why do we feel the urge to distance people from our work, our stuff, and our potential success?
- Why do we create silos and preserve them so vigorously?
We all hear leaders and other team members reference silos in a negative light within our teams and organizations. More often than not, we are charged with trying to figure out how to minimize or destroy these silos. Yet, this over possessiveness of our work responsibilities that produces silos and separation are so pervasive in our places of work, volunteerism, and even social fellowship.
So, we have to ask the questions, what are silos and why do we behave in ways that create them? Now, what I’m not going to address is the importance of each of us accepting responsibility for our areas of oversight and performance. It’s a good and right perspective to take our areas of ownership seriously and perform to the best of our abilities. However, there is a stark contrast between people who take personal responsibility for their “lanes” and people who are overly possessive of their “lanes”. What I will be addressing is how we can take this mindset of ownership too far and create a dynamic where shared ownership is non-existent, which creates silos that can reduce effectiveness, team morale, and positive impact.
Simply put, a silo is an artificial barrier placed between people, teams, or departments that hinders the free flow of information and connection.
These barriers usually manifest themselves through unhealthy mindsets that create turf wars. However, organizational structures and processes can often create silos in and of themselves by restricting or slowing the flow of information and reducing necessary team interactions. This only reinforces the turf war mindset and behaviors by creating unnecessary divisions.
Why Do We Allow Silos to Form?
- First, we don’t want our success, at an individual level, to be out of our control. We don’t want others to be the reason we fail or look bad. We don’t want to lose an opportunity to advance in the organization because someone else dropped the ball. I know that’s my first motivation when I become overly possessive of my work. I want my success to be a result of my hard work, which will help me stand out as a high performer.
- Secondly, we have to acknowledge that working in silos is much easier than taking time to collaborate. There’s so much vision casting, problem-solving, and team communication that is required if we are going to team well. It’s easier to just put my head down, do my job, and let the cards lie where they fall. I don’t have time to put in extra effort to build a cohesive team. I can get it done faster myself.
- Thirdly, we create silos in our work out of fear. I know I do. We don’t actually want accountability or critique. We don’t want someone else to say there might be a better way. We don’t want others to think less of us because we need help. Or, we fear the relational engagement that is required to operate outside of silos. Silos are a perceived (false) safe barrier between us and threats to our growth, our success, and our acknowledgment.
The unfortunate reality of the aforementioned reasons we create silos is that we are actually sabotaging our ability to accomplish our goals and experience fulfillment in the process. While each of these explanations for why we create silos sound deeply personal and individual, these are actually the same characteristics of entire teams that silo themselves from other teams and departments within our organizations.
Teams often don’t want their performance to be dependent on other teams or other inputs. Teams don’t want to do the hard work of engaging cross-functionally with other teams. And, unhealthy teams also have insecurities based on groupthink and team norms that isolate them from other people or groups. So, teams are just as capable and likely to create unnecessary silos and separation from others as individuals are. Again, why do we do this? We do this because silos can feel safe for individuals or teams.
Silos are less risky. But, they are also less effective, less healthy for organizational and team culture, and much less fulfilling for the individuals.
Signs of Silos
This begs the question, how do we recognize when silos are being formed or are already heavily embedded in our unofficial (sometimes official) organizational structures? Here are some indicators for when this is happening:
- Visibility and accountability between individuals, across teams, and departments is reduced or limited
- Long term performance suffers
- There is little creativity and innovation
- Low buy-in and team morale
I’ll just speak for myself… that sounds miserable. Who wants to spend most of our awake time, Monday through Friday, living in that dysfunction? When we tell people to stay in their lane and stay out of mine (ours), we lose outside perspective which can be the very catalyst for helping us become unstuck. This is the very reason teams hire coaches and consultants.
We, individually and collectively, need a new perspective. We need to see the benefits of preventing silos and sharing ownership of the team’s and organization’s success.
There’s nothing more deadly to a team or organization than isolating yourself from the collective unit. Isolation breeds discord and resentment.
As I stated before, it sabotages what we actually want in our places of work and daily engagement.
I think that most of us want to be a part of teams and organizations that are strong, healthy, fulfilled, and effective in what they do. If that is the case, then we have to do the hard work of preventing silos and creating lanes that cause us more pain than help. So, how do we do this?
We have to acknowledge that silos are created by unhealthy mindsets and silos are broken by creating a healthy mindset. We have to cast a compelling vision for why and how openness, free-flowing communication, and slowing the process down to get better results are beneficial at the individual and collective levels.
And guess what, we need more than just the designated leadership and management team to cast this vision. We have to preach to ourselves daily. We have to encourage our peers to lean into uncomfortable conversation, with grace. We have to take risks. But leaders, it should definitely start with us.
Five Practical Steps for Preventing Silos
1. Physically and/or virtually bring people together regularly for culture building and vision casting.
Regularly is very subjective. For virtual and global teams this may be once a year with video portals filling in the gaps. For on-location teams, this can be accomplished through weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual gatherings.
2. Invest time, resources, and money in building healthy team dynamics and collaboration skills.
Even highly emotionally intelligent people need time to build collaborative skills with one another. The size of the team and the magnitude of the project/task will determine the level of investment needed for effective teaming.
3. Build cross-functional workgroups/teams to tackle growth initiatives.
Simply bringing a diverse group of thinkers and roles together (who know how to collaborate) will promote healthy questioning, debate, brainstorming, and execution.
4. Give time and resources to collaborative efforts.
Too often we want results fast. What ends up happening is we produce shallow results that often miss the mark. People need time to think, meet, and test solutions that address the root causes of problems. This is different from bullet two because this time allotment and these resources are dedicated to the actual project, not necessarily to building team skills.
5. Reward people and teams for collaboration.
Have team incentives. Make it worthwhile and fun to work together. If we primarily reward people for individual performances, then we will create an environment where people seek individual success versus team success. We want people to compete with one another, not against one another.
“We don’t drift in good directions. We discipline and prioritize ourselves there.” (Andy Stanley, The Principle of the Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be).
Most individuals and teams drift into silos, but no one drifts out of them. We have to be intentional to prevent and get out of this unhealthy mindset that creates tribalism and dysfunction within our places of engagement. Intentionally look for signs of silos and address these signs by bringing people together and developing a more united and collaborative approach to your work. Then your purposes will be accomplished and your people will be fulfilled.