Do you routinely struggle with your teams resisting outside feedback? Or focusing too myopically on their own job responsibilities without considering how they might participate more broadly in the company?
These are common behaviors when departments aren't designed to work together, and your logical instinct might be to increase interaction. We need to build engagement to break down these silos between our employees. Maybe you kick off a series of company happy hours hoping to bring the team together. And while that’s a great way to build culture, engagement activities won’t solve your silo problem. Because low engagement isn’t the root cause of organizational silos; it’s a symptom. The real problem is a lack of systemic thinking—and the solution starts with you.
How organizational silos happen
A client of mine (let’s call her Glenna) came to a coaching meeting frustrated and distressed. She had competent employees that knew how to do their work—but that was all they did. They weren’t functioning as a team and had no sense of what the company as a whole was trying to achieve. And she blamed herself for not prioritizing collaboration during the hiring process.
She was right to look inward for the answer. But the problem wasn’t the people—it was the environment they were working in. Glenna had created a culture that emphasized self-management and task-oriented goals. Without understanding how organizational structures happen, she’d unknowingly created an “every man for himself” mindset. Her employees had been trained to concern themselves with hitting the mark within their own departments and nothing more. There was no incentive to think outside their immediate realm of impact or to consider where and how they each fit into the larger whole.
Glenna hadn’t done anything wrong. But without the unbiased perspective of a coach, it was hard for her to see the problem for what it was.
She’d done what many business owners do, designing systems without taking the big picture into account. It happens when a business reaches the point of hiring multiple managers and creating an identifiably vertical reporting structure in each department, which often causes communication issues, demoralizes employees and hampers growth. When you and your management team set up these reporting structures without considering how one department touches another, how each is vital to the business achieving its goals, your team will naturally begin operating in silos—it’s what you’ve taught them to do.
And a key part of why this segmented reporting structure forms in the first place is that how you think about your business and its systems is segmented. Here’s how to change that.
Understand the systemic relationship between your business systems
To break down organizational silos, consider how you think about your different business departments—sales, customer fulfillment, product development, etc. Do their systems function independently or do they interact? What’s your instinct tell you?
Now think of your own body. Like a business, the human body is made up of many systems that each serve a purpose. But the health of the body requires the systems to communicate and work together.
If you burn your finger, your nerve send pain signals to your brain to alert you to danger. A blister forms on your skin, beneath which white blood cells attack the bacteria to protect your body from infection. Each of these anatomical systems is discrete, but they all work together to power a well-functioning organism.
Your body is full of examples of systemic relationships. So is your small business: Whether or not you’ve named and defined them, systems run your business, and they need to rely on each other to function properly.
Practice systemic thinking
Thinking about your business systems in a compartmentalized way is the root cause of silo issues. Our brains love to put things into boxes, especially when we’re busy—we’re hard-wired to categorize. But this isn’t systemic thinking. Silos harm your business by failing to take the holistic, systemic view that will allow you to see and work through the root causes of issues.
To overcome this mindset, make the conscious choice to practice systemic thinking. This means not just being aware of how each system relates to the others but also keeping the big picture in mind when considering what makes your business run. How does changing an element of one system affect other systems and the whole? What are the overarching patterns at play when you make that change?
Practicing systemic thinking lets you see the business holistically and recognize the interdependence and cross-integration of your many systems. It’s the first step in creating not just a cohesive network of systems but a cohesive team that works together efficiently to get the results you’d like while also building strong engagement.
Foster systemic thinking within your team
Systemic thinking starts with you, but it takes buy-in from everyone in the company to really work. When Glenna realized that her hiring practices weren’t the reason behind her siloed organization, she knew the answer wasn’t to bring on more collaborative thinkers or work to build engagement. Instead, she had to completely restructure her management team. She implemented weekly Leadership Team meetings with her managers, company-wide “huddles,” and one-on-one meetings between managers and their teams. She also wrote out her picture of how she wanted her business to look and shared this with everyone during a special company meeting.
This strategy helped show employees not only what was expected of each department but why. They came to see where their work and systems touched others within the company and got a clear view of what they were working toward—together.
When you’re ready to begin breaking down the silos in your own small business, start with an honest look at the health of your systems and their relationships. Take our free Business Assessment to get started or reach out to us.