Working with business leaders around the globe, one topic persists regardless of geography or industry. It’s the challenge of silos. The closed group and silo mentality challenges a business’s ability to coordinate, innovate and be more agile — three criteria for competing with disruptive movements in today’s marketplace. And just as walls can be built to form the silos, these walls can also be torn down.
Before breaking down silos and associated barriers to cross-group collaboration, we first have to understand why barriers and silos are created and/or exist in the first place. Here are four beliefs we hear regarding why silos exist and persist within organizations today:

  1. Knowledge and Certainty — People within silos come to believe they hold specific knowledge that is well known and understood within the silo and is not understood outside of the silo. The silo provides a safe place for their knowledge and certainty of how things should be done. Others outside of the silo “don’t get it” or don’t know.
  2. Belonging and Shared Purpose — Silos are micro entities with their own microculture within the larger organization. These micro entities often have a clear, shared purpose that makes belonging much easier. Associating one’s place and identity in an organization is much easier with silos than without.
  3. Fear and Scarcity — Fear plays a big role in the existence of silos. People fear a loss of perceived control over an area for which they are responsible. We can believe that resources and knowledge are limited and even scarce. This results in protecting the resources and knowledge of the silo for fear that “outsiders” will compromise them.
  4. Lack of Control — Many leaders believe it is much easier to get things done by running the smaller world of the silo than to integrate one’s area into a greater whole. There are fewer people to coordinate with, fewer people involved in decision-making and faster cycles — all things we believe we can and must control within our silo.

Knowing the key beliefs behind the existence of silos, we can learn how to replace them with new ways of thinking. New mental models will help us integrate people, ideas and action across multiple teams while making our organizations more flexible in their ability to respond to challenges. Here are four ways to break down silos and the walls between us at work.

  1. Shift From Certainty to Curiosity — Silos, by definition, are discrete areas wherein people brought together under a common purpose develop expertise that adds value to the greater organization. That expertise should be fundamental to the organization’s ability to thrive; however, oftentimes, that same expertise results in rigid certainty wherein the people within the silo believe they are the owners of what can be known about a particular subject. As such, they are not easily open to other groups that appear to have little or no experience in their area of expertise.

Busting the silo mentality requires having the same expertise but combined with a belief that the perspectives of others can be complementary; therefore, we should always be curious about what other perspectives and possibilities may exist. With an awareness that all people and groups have blind spots, a mentality of openness and curiosity allows us to collaborate and create value with groups outside of our own.

  1. Expand Belonging and Share a Greater Purpose — Just as having a purpose in common can hold a smaller group or silo together, expanding the purpose you and your group share with others can make working outside the silo easier. Oftentimes, we believe that sharing a larger purpose can mean it will be less meaningful for the individual. They may perceive their contribution as less because they have to share in a purpose larger than the one within their silo,

Therefore, it is important to explore and determine the impact each role has with regard to supporting a larger purpose, one that is outside of the group or silo wherein you work. For example, in a technology company, the internal engineering function that serves all employees and company needs has the specific purpose of supporting employees and initiatives with access and ease-of-use of the best technology. At the same time, the human resources department’s purpose is different still in that it exists to recruit, develop and retain the best talent. For these two departments to work together effectively, each will have to subordinate their individual group purposes for a larger purpose they both can share and relate to as both group and individual contributors.

  1. From Fear and Scarcity to Confidence and Abundance — Our experience shows that to the contrary, most groups within organizations work with a mindset of scarcity. This, in turn, creates a competitive posture for talent, resources and budget. A mindset of scarcity will avoid risks and will fear losing time or money. In contrast, a mindset of abundance believes that there is always more and as such seeks to build relationships and collaboration in order to realize more of what they seek. It is a mentality of thriving versus surviving.

However, believing in abundance requires having confidence in one’s capabilities. Confidence allows us to see more opportunity with fewer constraints. Poorly equipped teams lack skills and capabilities. This, in turn, reinforces their mindset of scarcity. In contrast, high-performing teams are always pushing the boundaries of what others believe are scarce. They see opportunity instead of problems. They see more instead of less. They believe in their ability to achieve new heights.

  1. From a Lack of Control to Focusing on One’s Ability to Respond — All situations at work are comprised of elements within our control and elements outside of our control. Silos often persist because we believe that elements outside of the silo are also outside of our control.

For example, human relations and interaction outside the silo can be more challenging than relationships within the silo. This may be true for a variety of reasons, including worldviews, beliefs, attitudes and education that are different than those shared within the silo. And yet, within the complexity of people and relationships lies the greatest leverage for busting silos. By exploring our ability to respond to the challenge of these relationships, we can design processes or road maps to organize the task being shared. Processes help clarify the actions people will take to fulfill a purpose. The clearer, more streamlined and agile the process the better. It then allows for people to collaborate with focus.
Silos exist because they support what we believe about ourselves, our work and our organization. When we believe we know something and others do not, we create silos. When we limit our shared purpose, we create silos. When we have a mindset of having a scarcity of resources, we create silos to compete for and protect our resources. When we seek to feel in control, we build walls that keep out whatever is outside of our control and, in turn, we create silos.
The answer to busting silos begins with shifting our beliefs about ourselves, our work and our organization. We can shift from knowledge with certainty to having knowledge combined with curiosity, wherein we believe the input of others outside our silo can be complementary and add value. We can expand our purpose to be shared with others, thus bringing down walls between us. We can build our capabilities so as to have the confidence required to see abundance and opportunity versus fear and scarcity. Finally, by focusing on our ability to respond, we can expand our impact on others and on the task at hand, allowing silos to open so collaboration can flourish across departmental lines.

Three Warning Signs Your Workplace Culture Might Be Toxic and How to Begin a Detox

Recently I was in a coaching session with a client who was worn out and frustrated in a way that felt different than our previous meetings. He was doing his best to stay resilient in the face of many recent and significant challenges at his workplace. At that moment, he reflected on how he was contributing to the problems he was facing. He then paused and asked me, “How do you know if your workplace culture is toxic?”
We explored his inquiry further, and I asked some more questions to understand what he was seeing, sensing and hearing from others on his team. In this series of blogs, I will be sharing my reflections sparked by this conversation and take you deeper into our approach to culture transformation.
What is culture?

  • Culture is a set of learned beliefs, values and behaviors that have become the way of life in an organization;
  • It results from the messages that are received about what is really valued around here;
  • Most of these messages are nonverbal;
  • People pick up these messages and adapt their behavior to fit in.

Your workplace culture is either an enabler or detractor of success, fulfillment and well-being. Leaders set the tone, showing what is valued in an organization through behaviors, symbols and systems. Most simply, people are watching those who are successful and have status in a group and ask themselves, “What do I need to do to fit in and succeed in this environment?”
As social and emotional beings, we have a deep need to belong and also to be valued for our unique contributions. When this doesn’t happen in healthy, mature and constructive ways, we seek out ways to get our needs met in unhealthy, immature and destructive ways. This usually happens at an unconscious level being driven by underlying insecurities, fears and patterns of reactivity and defensiveness — toxic behaviors. Toxic literally means poisonous, and toxic behaviors drain life energy out of people and create distrust. When our motives, language and actions become harmful to ourselves and to others, it is time for a detox.
Three warning signs your workplace might need a detox:

  1. People don’t feel safe to take risks and are on the defensive.

When people don’t feel safe, their energy is spent trying to protect themselves, which leads to not taking risks, less creativity and innovation — and most damaging, distrust in their relationships. What are some common threats to feeling safe in the workplace that would cause you or others to go on the defensive?
Behaviors such as put-downs, sarcasm, negative tone of voice or body language, bullying, inconsistency, rigidity, exclusion, favoritism, controlling, lying, blaming, shaming and manipulation are some examples. At various times, we have all probably been the recipient and the deliverer of some of these threatening behaviors, even if it was unintentional.
Defensive patterns happen unconsciously. When we are overwhelmed and stressed or feeling threatened, the higher order “executive functions” of our brains shut down. Critical decision-making reverts to the more primitive and reactive brain centers, which increases our tendency to fight, freeze or flight. If the record of experiences stored in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala hijacks the rational brain, which can lead a person to react irrationally and destructively.
Unfortunately, these types of behaviors happen all too frequently in the workplace and contribute to creating toxic relationships and conversations. Taking ownership for how you could be contributing to the problem either through action, inaction or tolerance is the first step. Being open to assessing your own thinking and behavior patterns and comparing them with how you are perceived by others can help you to identify passive and aggressive defensive styles that sabotage your effectiveness as well as constructive styles that are more effective. These can also be assessed at a team or enterprise level to identify specific change levers for culture transformation.

  1. People don’t have clear plans, goals and are working in silos.

If there is misalignment at the highest level in the organization regarding strategy and business priorities, this cascades down to the rest of the organization. Depending on defensive styles, I have seen executive leaders and managers begin working aggressively toward competing goals and commitments, positioning and posturing themselves in their silos or passively “going along to get along” to avoid conflict. Even with the best of intentions, people often repeat ineffective defensive patterns out of habit during change.
In the face of uncertainty and lacking information, people make assumptions about what is happening and why. These stories often fuel feelings of fear, unhappiness and frustration, leading to disempowerment and resignation. People are less productive, they disengage, and both execution and collaboration suffer.
How can you best respond to this challenge? Working with your leaders to understand the business priorities and establishing clear goals, plans and expectations in alignment with the strategy reestablishes focus and purpose for team members. The majority of people want to do their best and will take initiative and propose solutions when there are clearly defined objectives, plans to achieve them and structures for mutual accountability.

  1. Managers don’t know what is important to people on their team.

Think about the worst manager you have worked with during your career and their characteristics. Typically, when I ask people to reflect on this, they say things like they don’t know me, they don’t care, they don’t have time to meet, they don’t listen to me, they know it all, and they seem most concerned with their own accomplishments and success.
Human beings want to be seen and valued for their contributions. Linking people’s work to something that is meaningful to them is the strongest foundation you can build for engagement. Connection to personal values provides a sense of purpose and a compass to orient individuals when times get tough. Values are the point of greatest leverage for people because they remind them who they want to be and what is important to them when things aren’t going the way they hoped.
Creating a culture where listening to what matters to people will help your organization to better care for them, validate and appreciate their strengths, and offer them opportunities to continue to stretch, learn and grow. When people sense you care about them and want the best for them, they feel safe and respected, and they will usually bring the best of themselves to the challenge.
How to Begin a Detox
The purpose of a detox is to cleanse or reset the system. Here are some tips to get you started.
Raise your awareness: A detox begins by acknowledging what isn’t working and creating a desire for transformation. This is an invitation to look within yourself and your organization more deeply to diagnose and surface what’s happening with both qualitative and quantitative data. This will help you to understand the current culture challenges and opportunities as well as the “from – to” mindset shift needed to enable sustainable behavior change and the key levers for organizational transformation.
Alignment: Partner with key stakeholders to build the business case for change, identifying a clear connection to how a toxic culture undermines execution of business strategy. Design a customized culture transformation plan, integrating values-based mindsets, behaviors, systems and symbols needed to execute in alignment with your business priorities.
Action and accountability: Support leaders and teams to embed desired mindsets and behaviors into the day-to-day rhythm of the business with coaching, pulse checks and metrics to measure impact.
Culture transformation can take years. However, one positive change or choice typically leads to other positive changes and choices. How you choose to respond can influence and impact those you work with in significant ways over time.