How to break down team silos and improve collaboration

Ana Erkic

Last updated on: January 20, 2022

As the traditional work environments are shifting to remote and hybrid structures, companies are tasked with figuring out how to break down team silos and address the new challenges in collaboration.

Silos form when teams operate in bubbles, unwilling to interact and share with other departments. If left unattended, the silo mentality can wreak serious havoc in organizations and leave lasting negative effects on the overall success of the companies.

In this article, we will help you better understand the pesky silo mentality, and the obstacles it presents within an organization. In addition, we will examine all the different potential reasons the silo mentality occurs. Finally, we will present a list of seven actionable solutions to break down workplace silos and make collaboration happen. 

How to Break Down Team Silos - cover

The silo effect in organizations – revisited 

We’ve all been conditioned to acquire some form of silo mentality from the moment we stepped out into early adulthood. You were told to pick your lane and stay focused on that one particular area of expertise. That is the safest and fastest way to succeed. It’s not particularly smart to be the jack of all trades, and so on. 

The same type of mindset took root in organizations and businesses around the world. This caused major collaboration, productivity, and general organizational obstacles.  

As a 2016 survey by McKinsey finds, executives categorize silo mentality as the number one stumbling block to a functional digital culture. 

The problem only gets worse as the organizations are moving towards fast-paced global markets. The more vibrant markets require higher flexibility and efficiency. On the one hand, centralized organizational structures are essentially necessary, in terms of more focused decision-making. However, this type of structure fails to meet the demands of the modern business environment. 

As the latest research on The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers shows, the sudden transition to company-wide remote work resulted in increased siloed behavior. Moreover, it caused a substantial decrease in synchronous communication among information workers. This is another clear signal to organizations to focus more efforts on preventing and breaking down team silos.   

What are team silos?

To effectively break down silos in the workplace, we first need to define the problem of silo mentality and how it translates into the business environment.

The Cambridge dictionary defines silos as “a part of a company, organization, or system that does not communicate with, understand, or work well with other parts.” Moreover, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition highlights the negative effects of silos “as hindering communication and cooperation.”  

A silo mentality derives its name from the resemblance to the actual, physical silos used to store grains on farms. Much like the actual silos that keep the grains stored in a closed environment, the team silos occur when the information or knowledge flow is restricted to specific teams in a company. The silo mentality breeds low work morale, general ineffectiveness, and power struggles. This produces substantial losses in resources, opportunities, and revenue.  

The main reason organizational silos are quite hard to detect lies in their intangible nature. It’s only after the concrete proof of poor performance that organizations can start to examine the silo mentality as one of the potential causes.

What causes silo mentality?

The problem of silo mentality is further complicated by the fact that both communication and collaboration factor in here. Naturally, it causes twice the amount of issues to resolve when working to break down company silos. 

In addition to withholding information, teams stuck in siloed thinking also tend to disregard the demands of the new, cross-functional mode of work. As the organizations grow, teams get more focused roles. Yet, most often, teams fail to adapt their processes to better meet the new collaboration needs. And this is especially evident over the last couple of years. As teams and entire organizations moved to a remote and hybrid environment, most struggled to overcome obstacles to successful collaboration

While it can get pretty challenging to break down company silos, it’s a good practice to start from the root cause. To help you examine the issue more thoroughly, here are the most common factors causing the silo mentality at work:

Leadership discord 

A disagreement between different team leaders on a plan or a strategy is one of the reasons organizational silos can happen. These power struggles often lead to a completely new set of communication and collaboration hurdles. 

When the issue starts from the top of the organizational hierarchy, it quickly spreads to teams and individuals. Most often, this results in a significant productivity decrease, as the number one marker of larger structural issues. 

Poor information-sharing 

Siloed behavior can result from a lack of incentives for information-sharing. Teams work in a closed environment with no encouragement to share information with affiliated departments. Over time, this generates a number of major productivity issues. 

When departments don’t have a clear understanding of each others’ responsibilities and priorities, it can lead to duplicative work and mistrust, among other challenges. Moreover, miscommunication is largely present in organizations with multiple communication channels used by teams

Unclear priorities 

Insufficient focus on larger priorities within organizations negatively impacts collaboration. This often breeds a silo mentality among teams. Without a clear, underlying vision to strive to, teams get focused on the narrower, department-specific goals. 

Communication obstacles 

A lack of functional, flexible communication channels commonly creates team silos within organizations. As one of the key barriers to effective communication, poor communication tool options leave little room for effective sharing and collaboration. Organizations that rely solely on email to communicate between teams are missing important opportunities for building a healthier and more productive digital culture. 

Lack of feedback opportunities 

Another major factor of siloed behavior is present in organizations that don’t prioritize and encourage feedback. A lack of trust and openness to share and solicit feedback across different departments often results in closed, siloed behavior, blocking collaboration. 

Narrow expertise 

Organizations prioritizing specific, narrow expertise over a broader, cross-functional knowledge and organizational structure, often experience drawbacks of isolated team silos. Super-specific focus removes the larger perspective which is essential for cross-functional collaboration. 

What are the challenges of isolation silos among departments?

It is quite obvious that silos harm various structures and processes within an organization. In addition to the most apparent drawback of the silo mentality that reflects in the lack of efficiency, team silos most often disrupt the entire company culture. 

Here’s a complete list of the most common silo symptoms among departments. You can use it as a checklist to assess the culture in your organization. 

  • Delays – Poor inter-departmental communication and collaboration often result in failure to meet deadlines and important goals. 
  • Mistrust and rivalry between teams – Closed, silo mindset creates fewer opportunities to build trust, open communication, and sharing across teams. 
  • Unwillingness to accept accountability – In a siloed culture, teams tend to take pride in their distinctive qualities, but will undeniably fail to share liability for mistakes.
  • Task duplication – When teams lack regular communication and cooperation practice, task duplication becomes a regular occurrence causing unnecessary delays and costs. 

Seven strategies to break down team silos

A 2019 report on the state of collaboration found that 94% of office workers rank collaboration as a top priority. This will encourage companies to seek better collaboration strategies. A proactive collaboration strategy should combine clear leadership examples, adequate toolsets, and additional training in order to break down silos in the workplace.

To help you break down team silos and foster collaboration in your organization, we’ve compiled a list of seven strategies to apply with examples and actionable steps to implement. 

In order to break down team silos, organizations need a clear action plan that includes building a unified vision mentality, fostering cross-team transparency and collaboration, and introducing more effective collaboration tools. 

Let’s dive in for more details. 

Build a unified vision mentality

All for one, and one for all! Sounds oversimplistic and cheezy, but it’s actually the way to go when working to break down silos in the workplace.

Silos happen when teams focus solely on their respective departments and team-specific goals. Very often, the goals of one team may clash with the objectives of another. This creates siloed environments resistant to information-sharing. 

The issue most often starts from the top of the organizational hierarchy. Managers and leaders often fall victim to hyper-focus. When trying to meet their specific objectives, they can lose sight of the bigger picture. This mindset quickly spreads to other team members encouraging another set of silos to take root. Until, inevitably, organizations reach a place where every individual becomes a silo in their own way.

To help you prevent this scenario in your organization, we’ve listed some steps to apply to build a more connected culture.

Incentivize a vision-oriented mindset

To break away from the damaging silo mentality, managers and leaders need to foster a vision-centered culture. It involves putting the vision statement into practice and observing every individual as a unit that contributes to the greater, unified goal.

Set specific goals 

Instead of presenting a generic vision, organizations can achieve more by setting practical and achievable goals. Teams need clear directions and action plans to make sure everyone is prioritizing one, common goal. 

For some organizations, this could include creating company-wide customer experience councils. These would allow more inclusive discussions on developing better ways to support the overarching vision and communicate it to the customers. 

Others would find better use in creating more unified communication channels to foster a sense of community and highlight shared values and goals.

Use a single, centralized communication channel

Companies using a team chat tool such as Pumble as their default company-wide communication medium, experience a 30% increase in productivity. Having one single place for all conversations helps to reduce friction and response rates which are often key obstacles to successful collaboration. Pumble supports individual direct and group messaging, as well as public conversations organized as channels anyone can join. 

Open, company-wide discussions on customer experience are a great way to inspire teamwork and collaboration and strengthen employee engagement. Here’s an example of how this Pumble channel can look like: 

An example of a customer feedback channel in Pumble
An example of a customer feedback channel in Pumble

Develop cross-team transparency

Teamwork makes the dream work, as the saying goes. Yet, in silo-based organizations, this is hardly ever the case.

In fact, a general lack of information-sharing among teams is one of the key indicators of a silo mindset. 

Again, this can happen as a result of organizational limitations such as failure to highlight priorities. In some companies, there are simply not enough incentives to keep all teams updated on all processes, projects, and goals. In addition, most siloed organizations often fail to implement one centralized communication channel. Naturally, this only increases miscommunication and misalignment among teams. 

To break away from this team silo challenge, companies can work on encouraging transparency to build more trust among teams. 

Here are 3 key steps to improving cross-team transparency:

  • Hold regular cross-department management meetings – to make sure all departments are up-to-date on each other’s responsibilities and priorities.
  • Promote cooperation between related departments – e.g. marketing and sales as two highly interdependent teams whose success depends on the consistent exchange of information.
  • Develop streamlined communication – e.g. adopt a single communication tool across all teams. Companies using Pumble to strengthen cross-team collaboration can streamline all communication between teams. A sales team needs additional technical info to convert a client?  The development team is just one ping away.
An example of cross-team communication in Pumble
An example of cross-team communication in Pumble

Create more opportunities for cross-departmental communication and interaction 

When working to break down team silos it’s paramount to address the nature of communication in general and allow more opportunities for interaction between different teams. 

As a siloed mindset blocks healthy communication flow, teams can become resistant to engage in any form of interaction with people from other departments. 

To break down team silos and rebuild cross-functional culture, companies need to re-examine team communication at the baseline level. 

Start from the basic routines such as organizing regular check-in meetings across different divisions to encourage interaction. 

Adopt cross-team training sessions and team-building events to improve communication and trust, build empathy, and encourage interaction and sharing among all departments. 

One-on-one work buddy meetings with members of different teams can also be a very effective means to inspire better cross-team communication when breaking down silos and improving teamwork. 

Finally, to build more trust and empathy among teams, firms can create general, public channels. These should encourage all employees to solicit advice or share opinions on various topics outside of work scope. The entire company can chime in and share thus creating more understanding and openness among all employees. 

Pumble lets you create multiple public channels for all company employees to openly discuss any topic of interest. Organizations can utilize these functionalities to encourage more cross-department interaction. Want to share photos of your cute furry friends? Jump on the #pets channel and share the love. 

An example of a public channel conversation in Pumble
An example of a public channel conversation in Pumble

Incentivize better communication

Organizations that prioritize open, proactive communication have more success in preventing and breaking down team silos. 

Building a more open and safe culture where teams are comfortable sharing and soliciting feedback and asking questions will result in better communication and cross-team collaboration. 

When building an action plan to improve communication, be sure to focus on these three key steps:

  • Foster a sense of community and support
  • Create a safe space for feedback
  • Inspire teams to ask better questions

Foster a sense of community and support 

Organize informal weekly check-ins between teams to ask how everyone is doing. Provide support to new hires and help them integrate. Let everyone feel safe to express how they feel. Leaders can encourage more openness by sharing their bad days or mistakes and lessons learned. Teams can also use emojis in Pumble to express their current mood. 

Create a safe space for feedback 

Constructive feedback opportunities can support growth both on the individual and team levels. Cross-teams can implement regular feedback sessions to reflect on projects, assess, and optimize for future ones. This will encourage more feedback opportunities on individual projects as well, as people start opening up and sharing. 

When working to break down team silos and include feedback, it’s paramount to create a safe, constructive environment, free of assigning guilt and blame. Building a healthy culture open to regular feedback supports growth, productivity, and shifts from a team silo mentality to a more collaborative and connected culture. 

An example of team feedback conversation in Pumble
An example of team feedback conversation in Pumble

Pumble supports safe and streamlined file-sharing perfect for building feedback practices between teams. A design team can’t decide between two visuals for the company’s social media? A quick upload to a company public channel can generate a ton of instant feedback. Moreover, this practice is shown to create a sense of contribution and belonging to a community where every member’s voice is heard and acknowledged. 

Inspire teams to ask better questions 

Inquiry is critical to making the shift from a silo to collaborative cross-team work. Research by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School supports this premise. Gino shares her findings in an HBR article, suggesting that inquisitiveness positively impacts successful cross-department collaboration. To break away from a disconnected environment, organizations need to re-learn the practice of asking good questions that move the conversation forward. Instead of asking generic yes-or-no questions, teams can focus on encouraging other participants in the conversation to elaborate. This is best achieved by asking more specific, open-ended questions. 

To develop an agile, more flexible, and growth-oriented environment open to cross-team collaboration, organizations need to prioritize a more open and curiosity-driven work culture. 

Build more opportunities for cross-team collaboration 

Companies working to break down team silos will find that the problem doesn’t necessarily stem from teams’ unwillingness to collaborate. More often, it is a question of insufficient pathways for collaboration.

By creating more opportunities for cross-boundary work, companies will see a significant increase in productivity. It will also lead to better customer retention and overall more success in reaching company goals. As one 2015 research published in Harward Business Review suggests, organizations that support inter-department collaboration achieve better results in terms of customer loyalty and experience overall higher revenue. 

To implement better opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, organizations can inspire a sense of contribution across the company. By encouraging organization-wide input on general projects, firms are inspiring all individuals to better understand the importance of joint effort. At the same time, this helps foster a sense of contribution and connectedness. Companies can use #tags in Pumble to quickly search and access projects and channels outside of their departments. Leaders can incentivize teams to regularly track diverse workflows and contribute when inspired. 

Another effective collaboration-building method suggests creating cross-functional teams for general projects. There’s a business run coming up? Or an important industry event? Appoint an inter-department team to carry out the project. To inspire cross-silo dialogue and collaboration, ensure maximum communication efficiency and easy access to all information shared, add all relevant members across departments to dedicated Pumble channels.

An example of a group chat in Pumble
An example of a group chat in Pumble

Improve virtual collaboration and communication with team chat applications

It is particularly important to keep steady and streamline communication for companies looking to break down team silos and increase employee engagement in a remote and hybrid work environment.

An effective solution to ensure maximum productivity and collaboration across all teams is the use of team chat apps. 

In fact, research shows that effective digital collaboration tools improve employee workplace satisfaction by 17%. However, only 9% report their organizations use such infrastructure.  

As the element that ties all of the mentioned points together, choosing an ideal solution for a particular organization is not to be taken lightly. Firms need to weigh out all pros and cons of each available solution and measure it against their specific collaboration needs. 

For example, Pumble offers the following functionalities, designed to serve diverse organizations and structures: 

  • Filesharing. For efficient collaboration, information sharing, and feedback.
  • Flexible conversation arrangement. Multiple levels of chat transparency from direct one-on-one conversations, to invite-only group chats, and public channels available for the entire organization. Thread and reaction functionalities enable organizing conversations to even more specific segments, while the option to tag specific people ensures team members never miss important info. It also allows team leaders to easily appoint team members for specific tasks. The option to pin specific conversations or threads helps highlight important priorities and keep the critical info easily available.
  • Easy navigation. Pumble has an intuitive user interface and keyboard shortcuts to enable smooth navigation between conversations and support better communication within organizations. 
  • Functional search. To improve communication efficacy, help teams access important info, and eradicate duplicative work and conversations, Pumble enables a workspace-wide universal search function complete with filters for maximum precision.
An example of filtered search results in Pumble-min
An example of filtered search results in Pumble-min

Inspire employees to look beyond the organization 

Finally, while working to break down company silos, organizations need to help teams shift the focus from immediate tasks, and obtain a wider perspective both within the firm and beyond it. 

The incentive to broaden employees’ horizons and visions allows them to get exposed to the bigger picture and discover new ideas. At the same time, they are being trained in breaking away from the silo mentality. 

In addition to encouraging cross-team collaboration on shared projects, leaders can motivate teams to broaden their horizons by exploring ideas and knowledge outside the organization.

This can even include going beyond the boundaries of the industry to discover new perspectives, look for innovative solutions and interdisciplinary techniques. Leaders can suggest additional resources such as courses, workshops, or specialized events and conferences employees can attend to bridge the gap between industries and find ways to apply and share the knowledge within the company. 

Wrapping up

Breaking down silos and building teamwork is a challenging process that requires serious effort across all structures within an organization. Apart from causing general collaboration and communication obstacles, a deep-rooted siloed mentality seriously harms company morale and productivity in the long run. 

As the teams are shifting to full-time remote and hybrid workplaces, companies are urged to make more efforts towards creating a healthier and more functional digital workplace culture. 

Although the teams might be all on board regarding the importance of open collaboration, it takes revising current procedures and implementing company-wide initiatives that support a more unified vision mentality and generate more opportunities for trust-building and transparency with cross-functional teams. Try applying the strategies outlined in this article to bring people, resources, and tools together to break down silos and make collaboration happen in your organization. 

Author: AnaErkic

Ana Erkic is a team communication and collaboration writer. When she is not researching the most productive collaboration techniques, she can usually be found trying out the latest team chat and collaboration tools and apps.

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