Seven ways to break down workplace silos

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Sometimes our work environments make it seem like we've never left high school. Cliques develop, groups grow insular and it becomes nearly impossible to cross the divide. Whether it's a nonprofit organization or for-profit company, it's not unusual for employees to stick with colleagues in their own departments, or become so involved in their own work that they neglect to notice what is happening in the office next door.

Yet nonprofits also have the reputation for being kind, generous, selfless and community-minded. When silos develop within our walls, the consequences can range from a loss of good employees to disillusionment with the mission.

While there isn't much research available that specifically addresses workplace-silos, a US survey of nonprofit staff in New York and Washington revealed that 74% of employees said internal office politics interfered with getting work done.

In some cases, nonprofits don't even realize that silos are happening, says Alison Brewin, a consultant who specializes in facilitation and has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years.

“A lot of organizations don't recognize what's going on within their own organization,” she says. “And I think those groups are the ones who don't have a systematic, organizational evaluation process. They don't have an evaluation culture where they're prepared to ask the questions.”

What are silos and what are their effects?

“[Silos are] very natural,” says Myka Osinchuk, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation. “People get wrapped up in their own work, they get wrapped up in making sure their own needs get accommodated. The challenge is always how you face it.”

Silos can happen in any organization – not just the large ones with multiple offices or a large number of employees. People become so involved in their own tasks or service provision that they lose sight of the larger picture, and can no longer see another department's point of view. This is where communication begins to break down, personality conflicts may develop and the organization begins to struggle with achieving its main vision and mission.

When silos are staunchly in place, an organization might be less efficient, have a high staff turnover, and even lose funds.

“For the organization, not having that level of interaction, communication and awareness across silos about what people's priorities are and what they're working on, in the end will cost the organization more money,” Brewin says.

Ann Clancy, the national director of human resources and volunteer services at the Canadian Red Cross, says that silos are a reality for any organization. She points out that one of the biggest drawbacks of silos are their effect on morale.

“One of the biggest advantages nonprofits have is that sense of mission and values that inspire staff and volunteers,” she says. “What happens with silos sometimes is inspiration can get lost in terms of [employees] seeing how their work is moving the organization forward, not just in their own group, but as a whole.”

What can be more detrimental, though, is the effect on your external audiences. Silos can make your organization seem uncoordinated and unprofessional, which impacts the involvement of clients, volunteers and board members.

“It makes it hard for clients and volunteers to be engaged, because they feel like they need to go from one department to another, as opposed to people responding to their needs as their needs are,” Brewin says.

The upside of silos

Both Clancy and Osinchuk point out that silos aren’t always a bad thing. Silos allow staff to specialize in their unique talents, give them accountability, and provide clarity about tasks that need to be accomplished.

“When we start talk about silos, it goes immediately to the negative,” Clancy says. “It's important for leaders to talk about what silos add. They do have a place in organizations to allow for focus on what you're responsible for, moving things forward and getting jobs done. To a certain degree, they are a necessary requirement to getting work done.”

Of course, the problems begin when the intensity of organizational silos shifts to the extreme, and inefficiencies and animosity bubble to the surface. Fortunately, there are many ways to break down silos. It's an ongoing process, and nonprofits are continually striving to improve the way people interact with one another.

“From my perspective, this is a continuous piece of work. It's never done, it's never perfect, and I don't think there's one right solution,” Clancy says. “It's just ongoing and it's everybody's responsibility. Yes, leaders have to model it, but employees and volunteers can also play an active role in actually breaking these things down in their local offices. Employees and volunteers can play a huge role in creating the positive environment they want to work in.”

Here are seven ways to start breaking down silos:

1. Begin with your leadership. Silos can only be addressed when leaders are committed to creating a strong organizational culture of communication and trust, and they constantly exhibit the behaviour they'd like to see in their employees.

“It's a leadership commitment. You want to create a culture where people ask for help, not only from their peers, but also from their leaders,” says Osinchuk. “You need to make sure that you've got leaders that are not hierarchical, but respond quickly when people ask for assistance, so it becomes part of the culture. Everyone wins when everyone wins. If you don't have that kind of leadership attitude, how can you expect everyone else to embrace that?”

Brewin says that leaders play an enormous role in cultivating trust in the organization's goals and mission.

“Trust is a huge part of all of this,” she says. “Where there's a lack of trust, that's when people keep their head down and focus on the desk in front of them. People need to trust and really be inspired by the mission. And the only people that can do that are the senior people.”

2. Conduct an evaluation. It's difficult to handle an issue when you haven't accurately measured it first. Survey your staff and ask about engagement and job satisfaction. If you suspect silos are the root of your organization's problems, call in a third party to conduct interviews, collect information and assess what's going on.

“People make a lot of assumptions about what's going on in different departments, and aren't actually testing those assumptions in some way,” Brewin says. “If they haven't done that, then you can ask a leader and they can say, 'Everything's great, everyone loves everyone, we all get along, it's one big team passion', but they've never actually asked the staff if that's true. And they don't quite know why things aren't working right.”

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Effective communication is key to preventing or breaking down silos. There are many ways to keep everyone informed: use a staff intranet, send regular newsletters and emails, host regular lunch meetings that offer updates, or have video or conference calls. If you have staff in multiple locations, have senior leaders visit those offices to keep everyone in the loop.

“Effective communication in the organizations doesn't just mean giving people a heads up,” Osinchuk says. “It really means that you're sharing information, that there's full disclosure, that everybody's operating on the same information and that will lead back to a shared understanding of where you're going.”

Clancy says that the service departments at nonprofits (marketing, finance, HR, etc.) can play a huge role in handling silos, too, because they often come into contact with staff from all areas of an organization.

“We try and remind those groups that they can be the eyes and ears of just triggering some of those communication issues where they're seeing [potential conflicts] develop,” she says. “It's just opening up the opportunities for dialogue and discussion, so we're not duplicating effort and we can find some other efficiencies.”

4. Have a formal plan. Ensure that your organization has an up-to-date strategic plan and that everyone understands it. When everyone knows where they fit in and how their contributions impact the organization as a whole, they may be more inclined to reach out across silos to ensure that goals are accomplished.

5. Create a culture of gratitude. It's difficult for staff to be open and trusting when they feel under-appreciated. Recognize staff for their contributions to projects, and acknowledge when they make extra effort to get things done. Some nonprofits implement formal programs, while others do this casually. Osinchuk says that creating a culture of gratitude entrenches the notion that staff are all part of an ecosystem.

“It's not just about being gracious and being polite to your team members, it's about getting people to start to think about who they rely on and who relies on them,” she says. “By noticing and addressing those instances where people have helped you, you really start to think about the next time.”

6. Get social. Life at a nonprofit doesn't have to be all work, all the time. Give staff the opportunity to socialize and build relationships. For example, Clancy says some staff at the Red Cross go for walks at lunch, some participate in a yoga class together, while others order in the occasional pizza as a lunchtime treat. Create a space, such as a break room, where staff can congregate and interact with one another, even if it's only for a few minutes.

7. Share organizational stories. Every organization has wonderfully inspiring stories about clients, volunteers or donors that illustrate the impact its work is having on the community. But not every employee gets to hear those stories on a regular basis. Begin sharing stories or photos with staff to remind them of the bigger picture and show them how important their contributions are.

Does your organization struggle with silos? What tips would you suggest for breaking them down?

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, holistic nutritionist and food blogger. Find out more about her writing services at, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

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