HR Strategies to Break Down Working in Silos in the Workplace

Working in Silos Hurts Communication and Accomplishing Shared Goals

You can improve your organization's working in silos mentality if you communicate in words that other departments understand.

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If you’ve ever visited a farm, you’ve seen large grain silos. They are generally tall, and silver and they stand separate from each other. What you put in one silo doesn’t affect the others. Unfortunately, you can experience the same mentality at work when people are working in silos.

What Does Working in Silos Mean for Your Workplace?

When your department does X, and the neighboring department does Y, and you don’t understand each other’s processes, you work in a silo. Furthermore, when you are working in a silo environment, you tend to think that your operations are critical, and the other departments are not.

Worse, when your department actively works to achieve X and the neighboring department actively works to stop X, you’re not only siloed, you’re antagonistic. This happens more often than you might think.

For example, the Human Resources department wants to increase training and development budgets to help reduce turnover, while the finance department keeps slashing departmental budgets. HR can’t understand why finance is so tight-fisted, and finance can’t understand why HR keeps presenting employee training and development proposals that call for increases in the budget.

You can see how difficult it is to get work done in these situations, but businesses often end up siloed. Part of this is tradition, and part of the problem comes from managers who like accomplishing their tasks and don’t want to integrate with the rest of the company.

How HR Can Help People Who Are Working In Silos

The HR department should be the expert in people, just like finance should be the experts in money. So, HR is well positioned to help with the breakdown of these silos.

Speak the Same Language to Avoid Siloed Communication

This point is not about everyone speaking English or Spanish; it is about the language of each department. Often, silos happen because, while employees say words, the other group doesn’t understand what the employees of the other department mean with the words they use.

This isn’t unusual: if you’re an HR manager in a research laboratory, do you understand scientific jargon? Probably not. Moreover, if you’re a scientist, do you know all of the acronyms that HR throws at you? Stay cognizant of the fact that HR talk is not universally understood.

When you speak with other departments or coach departments in how to better communicate with each other, note that the departments may not communicate successfully because of the differences in language.

If you look at the above example of a conflict between HR's desire to expand training and finance's need to cut the budget, you can see that a bit of translation solves the problem.

What language does finance speak? Numbers. HR generally focuses on words and soft skills. So, if you come into finance and say, “We will increase employee engagement and retain our best employees if we increase our training and development opportunities,” the head of finance hears, “Blah, blah, blah, that’s expensive.”

Instead say, “Every year we spend $250,000 on recruiting and training new hires. If we spend $50,000 on this new training program, we can expect to lower turnover by 10 percent. We expect to break even in two years, and save money every year after that.”

That’s a proposition that finance can understand far better than the words, “employee engagement.”

End the Turf Wars Between Siloed Departments

Brent Gleeson identified Turf Wars as one of the causes of siloed departments. For your department to win another department must lose. Therefore, it is to your advantage to keep information secret.

HR can help address compensation plans, including bonus plans, that can remove these turfs. If winning requires help from other groups, people will speak to each other.

Additionally, cross training and internal transfers can cut down on the “dig in your heels” mentality. If an employee moves from operations to finance or HR, he or she brings with them a deep understanding of what it takes to succeed in the other department.

This deep understanding can help all of the new department's employees see how working together is good for the business, and how overall business success is good for the individual departments.

Working in Silos Starts With the Expectations of Senior Employees

If the CEO enjoys watching her senior team battle with each other, you can almost guarantee she will have siloed departments. Instead, the CEO needs to work to bring her team together and reward her department heads for collaboration and teamwork.

Isn’t Technology Part of the Problem When People Work in Silos?

You might think that enabling people to work from home and communicate mainly through instant messages would build a fractured team. It’s possible, but fractured groups and silos existed long before email and instant messaging existed.

Technology is neutral; it’s how you use it that matters. HR can encourage the use of technology to bring people together. For instance, it’s now easy to share reports among different departments. It’s also easy to talk to your coworker who is at another site or works from home. You can get instant responses and input.

Make sure your employees aren’t using technology as an excuse for their bad behavior.

Just like grain silos, there are gaps between departmental silos, and you lose a lot of information in these gaps. Work together with your HR team to ensure that the departments communicate with each other.

Strive to create a workplace in which better understanding the goals, needs, and interconnectivity of your groups or departments brings a more cohesive team and better delivery results.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer and former human resources professional with over 10 years of experience.