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The Silo Mentality Explained: Breaking Bad Habits

Working in silos is a common issue experienced by modern organisations. It’s hard to believe that in an age where everything is so connected that communication issues could still occur, but they do. 

We think Helen Keller said it best when she said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” While not only a fantastic quote, it also rings true in so many situations.

The silo mentality is the bane of organisational effectiveness. Symptoms include tunnel vision, unclear goals and a lack of collaboration. To help you combat this, we’ve put together a complete guide to combatting the silo mentality. 

We’re covering what silos are, how to identify them, their negative impact, and how you can avoid them. 

What Is the Silo Mentality?

The silo mentality or working in silos refers to when ‘bubbles’ form within an organisation that do not collaborate. These bubbles operate on their own, and rarely communicate or share information. 

The traditional definition of ‘silo’ is a container commonly used for industrial purposes. In modern terms, it is used to describe a group of people that work independently from other teams. The silo mentality causes several issues in how an organisation works and can go unnoticed and unresolved for a long time. 

Symptoms of the silo mentality can include:

  • Groups that are unwilling or unable to share information or collaborate with other groups
  • Divides appear within an organisation between departments or teams
  • The idea of collaboration between teams being considered impossible
  • Certain groups ‘gatekeeping’ their knowledge or processes as an attempt to preserve their status as expert

An individual who possesses a silo mentality may have a very simplistic, strict and tunnel-visioned way of thinking. They may struggle to understand new ways of doing things that go against the norm and may resist any prospect of beneficial change.

Commonly described as ‘being set in their ways’, these individuals are typically unable to think flexibly. They may have gotten used to doing things a certain way or may be frightened of their methods becoming obsolete.

The Negative Effects of Silos

The silo mentality produces individuals who do not communicate. They aren’t keen on sharing information or working with other teams, which can cause a myriad of issues for organisations.

1) It damages productivity

Productivity thrives on communication, having procedures in place, and knowing who to contact and when. Working in silos can leave you in a slump as to what to do in situations where you need to reach out, most likely resulting in procrastinating or moving on to other tasks.

We all suffer from finding the motivation sometimes, getting into a stride on a project, and then having it come to a sudden halt can be devastating for both productivity and your mood.

Actively disengaged employees cost their organisation $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34 percent.

This can have a tremendous effect on the bottom line, meaning, less work and less money.

2) Tasks get done twice, or not at all

Repeated or missed workloads can be a common occurrence if your organisation is working in a silo. Tasks can get ignored because of the “the other team will do it” mentality if departments are not actively communicating with each other. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation. 

3) Customer service suffers

A study by Hubspot showed that “93% of customers are likely to make repeat purchases with companies who offer excellent customer service.” 

Retaining existing customers is much less expensive than engaging entirely new ones. Therefore, communication is key to providing a great customer experience and keeping customers on board.

While you may think customer service is just one department, meeting the demands of the customer is actually everyone’s responsibility –  product development, marketing, sales, IT – you name it.

Even though some of these departments don’t have direct contact with customers, their work does. It’s important that everything presented by the business has a consistent voice, supports the company’s goals and ethics, and provides the same level of service throughout. 

And of course, collaboration is the answer. Anything less and you can risk turning away repeat customers.

4) Divides form within the organisation

The less often teams communicate, the more disconnected they become. This disconnect is a breeding ground for speculation, assumptions and suspicion. In turn, this can snowball into mistrust and even friction. 

For example, Team A might consider a particular task to be Team B’s responsibility. Team B thinks it’s Team A’s job. Neither team completes the task, and neither one is aware that it doesn’t get done. Each team then blames the other for the mishap.

What Causes the Silo Mentality?

Silos can arise for multiple reasons, both intentionally and unintentionally. They often occur naturally as teams diverge on their goals, but can be created intentionally by specific individuals. Here are some specific causes of silos in the workplace.

1) Communication issues

At its core, the silo mentality is caused by a lack of communication between teams. Communication is at the heart of every great organisation, but without a means to openly discuss ideas and work together, silos are bound to form. 

This lack of communication could be between teams, departments, colleagues or even directors or stakeholders. Either way, if everyone is not on the same page, serious problems can arise. 

2) Unclear goals or vision

Organisational silos can be as a result of a lack of understanding of a wider vision or goal. Perhaps no vision has been laid out to begin with, or they weren’t communicated properly through the company structure. 

A common example of this is the confusion between long-term and short-term goals. Both are equally important, but there needs to be a clear line between the two. 

Without proper guidance and support, teams can be too focused on the day-to-day, while the monthly, and yearly strategies are ignored. This can be especially prominent in small agencies, where hitting monthly targets are imperative and long-term targets are always left at the back of the queue. 

Unless visions and goals are set clearly, and communicated effectively and consistently, employees may end up creating their own goals and working to their own schedules. This can end up with collaboration and company goals left gathering dust.

3) Competition

Competition is drilled into our DNA, it’s a natural, healthy state of being – however, not always in the workplace. While being competitive can encourage growth, learning and collaboration achieve much higher rates of growth as competition can also lead to being counterproductive for the sake of hurting other departments. 

Competing for resources, an unwillingness to share ideas, and ignoring other departments can be detrimental to not only your productivity but your customers. 

4) Internal politics

Silos are a common product of internal squabbling at the highest level. This is perhaps the most damaging form of silos, and the most difficult to fix. 

Picture a disagreement in the boardroom between stakeholders. One believes a particular method is the best way of doing things, while the other disagrees, and proposes another method. Each one believes that if they can demonstrate how well their method works to the CEO, it will win over the other.

Each of these stakeholders has a department at their disposal and subsequently uses them to further their own agenda. The departments do not communicate with each other, resulting in diverging workloads that waste time and resources.

5) Lack of collaboration

Many modern organisations favour a collaborative approach to work. The many benefits of collaboration are well known, including a breakdown of barriers, better mental health and improved productivity. 

Collaboration is a vital way of breaking down barriers within an organisation. Working together towards a common goal unites individuals, teams, departments and the entire organisation. 

6) Physical separation

One often-overlooked cause of silos is the physical separation of workers. In 2020, we were sent to work at home, and regular communication became infinitely more important. 

Remote workers are prime candidates for the silo mentality due to physical isolation and it’s vital to ensure everyone communicates, regardless of where they work. 

Larger organisations are often forced to place departments in different locations, sometimes different buildings. This distance can often cause communication to decline, and the silo mentality to form.

Examples of the Silo Mentality at Work

Now we’ve broken down the common causes of the silo mentality, it’s time to run through some examples. You’ve probably heard or seen one or two of these at work.

Silo Example 1) Department vs. department

A business has three departments, each one specialising in providing the company’s services to a different sector. These departments do not talk, each one a silo. 

The business outsources its marketing to a third party, who then has to communicate with each of the three departments separately. The third-party tries their best to balance the needs and messaging styles of all departments. 

Each department tries to pull the third-party in its direction, often in conflict with the other departments. Because the departments don’t communicate, common ground cannot be found, and the company’s marketing strategy falls apart. 

Read our guide on Cross Team Communication to learn how to avoid this,

Silo Example 2) Stakeholders at odds

Two stakeholders have a fundamental disagreement about an approach to quality control. Each stakeholder gathers several middle managers to their side and instructs them to perform QC in their preferred way.

This results in multiple departments performing quality assurance in different ways. Different standards are adhered to, resulting in one department producing one style of documentation, and another department with another. 

To combat this, the middle managers decide to start following both methods of quality control. Neither stakeholder concedes to the other, and a vast amount of company time is wasted performing different QC checks that should have been standardised in the first place.

Silo Example 3) No collaboration

A team consists of four remote solicitors. Each one manages several company clients and is granted autonomy in managing their caseload. The manager of this team does not encourage active communication or collaboration between the workers. 

Each solicitor works for the company for a while and gradually develops their own good and bad habits. Their working styles differ dramatically, and any sense of united company ethos is lost.

A large case eventually comes in that requires all four solicitors to work together. Because this ‘team’ has been working separately for a long time with no collaboration, there is no team rapport or sense of camaraderie.

The team members clash in their working styles, they do not meet each other’s standards, and the case falls through. The company loses money and credibility. 

How To Break the Silo Mentality

It is commonly said that breaking a bad habit can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days, and the same is said for the silo mentality. Breaking out of this mindset is a long-term process, and will not happen overnight. 

In order to break out of the silo mentality, it’s vital to get to the root cause of the issue and fix it from the inside out. Often the silo mentality can be deep-rooted in the business and can take a tremendous amount of effort and willingness from everyone involved to fix it. 

While the effects of working in silos should be apparent early on, this isn’t always the case, causing issues to get more and more out of hand. No matter what level your silo mentality is at within the business, follow these simple steps to overcome working in silos and start working towards a brighter future.

1) Assess the cause of your silo mentality

The first thing to do is determine why the silo mentality has emerged within your organisation or team. Is it the result of squabbling departments? Does physical separation play a role? Once you’ve established the root cause, breaking out will be far easier. 

2) Establish lines of communication

If you find yourself part of a department suffering from the silo mentality, simply establishing a connection with another department can help move things in the right direction. If you manage several teams that work in their own silos, put them in situations where they are forced to interact and collaborate. 

This can happen in several ways, e.g. speaking in person (maybe more so when we’re not working remotely from home), instant chat messaging, and phone or video calls. This simple connection between silos is the first step in breaking that mentality. 

3) Set goals

As with all new things, setting goals is key. As you aim to break out of your silos, set tangible goals for the process. Start out with a simple goal, such as touching base with another department every week, or simply speaking to each other more. 

To start with, small simpler goals may be preferred. These goals also need to be specific and measurable, in which case it’s advised to use SMART goals. This stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

This will help you set goals that you can understandably work towards, and complete.

4) Implement collaboration 

If the silo mentality was a werewolf, collaborative working is a silver bullet. Just as silos form when collaboration is limited, silos cannot sustain themselves if collaboration breaks people out of them. 

Of course, implementing a collaborative culture in your workplace isn’t easy. Luckily, we’ve put together this list of strategies that might help you – Collaboration Strategies for Modern Organisations

5) Maintain strong leadership

Strong, organised leadership resonates with employees renewing faith in the business and their roles. Breaking the silos can only be done when those at the top of your organisation allow it to happen. 

Managers, executives, and employees should all know who to contact, and who is their immediate overhead. This needs to be outlined clearly to establish task delegation, responsibilities and communication – without these, you risk falling back into working in silos.

How Can I Implement These Ideas?

Changing an organisation’s culture to one that is open to collaboration is no mean feat. In order to foster a culture of collaboration, you need the right mindset, the right space (physical or virtual), along with the right tools.

This is where Verto 365 comes in. Our partnership with Microsoft Teams delivers a better use of Teams that’s equipped with an abundance of collaboration tools through the Verto 365 app. So instead of needing to run systems simultaneously, you can simply run one with complete ease. 

Our cloud-based system provides a simple and effective solution to breaking down barriers within the workplace. Trusted by government bodies, healthcare providers, and the private sector alike, Verto 365 can be tailored to work for your exact requirements, in a way that suits you.

Take a look around our website today, or contact us with any questions you might have. Our team is always happy to help.

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About the author – Laura Watts

Laura is the Marketing Manager at TMI Systems Ltd., working predominantly on Verto 365 and closely on the Microsoft partnership enabling the platform to be used in its entirety from Microsoft Teams. Laura and her family moved from London in 2021 and now live and work in Gloucestershire.