Workplace silos can feel impenetrable. Here’s how to knock them down.
Cross-department collaboration makes anything possible—new ventures, innovative products, better processes. We know that silos are the enemy, but like lengthy slide decks, Zoom “Happy Hours,” and other misbegotten workplace trends, they persist. Why is it so easy to settle into a silo, and so hard to remember to reach across the aisle?
We understand instinctively that horizontal relationships matter, but they can be eclipsed by more immediate concerns. In a Harvard Business study, researchers asked leaders which relationships get prioritized in their day-to-day jobs. The answer was overwhelmingly vertical relationships—relationships with their boss and their team. When the same leaders were asked which relationships are most important for creating value for the customer, the answer changed to horizontal relationships between other departments.
As a leader, you’re responsible for guiding your team, but you’re also responsible for your team’s interactions and collaborations with other departments in the company. It’s critical to model that by maintaining close connections with other team leaders. Here’s how:
Meet regularly with other team leaders
Silos can be deeply ingrained, sometimes masquerading as “company culture,” or “how we’ve always done things.” While you can’t be expected to change company culture overnight, you can control how you and your team interact with others outside of your department. Make time on a regular basis—monthly or even quarterly—to check in with other leaders in your company. Use it as a networking opportunity to find out how your team can better support their needs and to introduce ways they can better support yours.
While you can’t be expected to change company culture overnight, you can control how you and your team interact with others outside of your department.
Set the example by asking questions
Studies show that managers with high levels of curiosity are more likely to build networks that span disconnected parts of the company. But many leaders stop asking questions as they rise up, out of fear that they’ll look incompetent. So be a role model, and ask questions.
Questions are key to productive work relationships, but they must be driven by genuine interest. Come prepared and ask thoughtful questions. Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein, authors of Humble Inquiry, offer these tips for more productive exchanges:
- Start with open ended questions, such as “How are things going on your end?”
- As you work together, ask questions that focus on specific topics but allow room to elaborate, like “What do you know about X?”
- Check your understanding by summarizing what you’ve heard and asking for confirmation.
- Take time to gut-check the relationship with questions like “How do you think the project is going?”
Bring cross-functional teams together
Encourage your team to see think beyond their immediate world and find out what’s happening with other teams in the company. You can facilitate this by setting up cross-functional meetings. Moderate the discussion and have staff discuss what they’re working on, how their work is impacted by what the other team is doing, and how they might collaborate in the future.
Over time, you’ll chip away at the barriers that make boundary-crossing work so hard. By creating conditions that encourage and support these practices, you promote increased efficiency in the overall company’s operations, increase morale, and contribute to building a productive company culture.
Edmonson, A. C., Jang, S., & Casciaro, T. (2021, September 9). What cross-silo leadership looks like. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2019/05/cross-silo-leadership.
Schein, E. (2021). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Berrett-Koehler.