Breaking Down Organizational Silos With Coaching

Nov 09 2021 | Insights
People talking in group.

Remote work has caused a ‘silo mentality’ in many organizations which is recognized as being damaging to efficiency and performance. In this article we explore how leaders can become better at communication and collaboration by leaning into the development opportunities offered by coaching.

You can add “silo mentality” as one of the collateral created by the global pandemic.

A September 2021 study published in Nature Human Behaviour Journal examined business communication among 61,000 Microsoft staff that had been sent home to work during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study followed employees in December 2019 (before the novel coronavirus made its appearance) and then compared it with data from the same employees in June 2020, three months after they had been sent home to work.

This business communication research consortium – which included Microsoft and the University of California Berkeley Haas Business School – looked at everything from instant messaging services, emails, phone calls and all forms of virtual meetings.

The findings were fascinating, if not a bit depressing.

Although many of the workers built stronger bonds with people involved in their immediate teams they spent 25 percent less time collaborating across teams or groups in the company, and made fewer “new connections” with people with whom they had not worked with previously.

It appears the mass-scale, work-from-home experiment that was foisted on so many of us cultivated stronger team dynamics, but less interaction and collaboration across different teams, units and departments. And that’s a problem.

“Our results suggest that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed—with fewer ties that cut across formal business units or bridge structural holes in Microsoft’s informal collaboration network—and that those silos became more densely connected,” the study concluded.

Why is collaboration so important for companies?

As the Haas/Microsoft study so succinctly concluded, cross-functional communication and collaboration is considered a core best practice for all types of businesses. It is seen as a gateway to greater problem solving, innovation and better bottom-line performance.

Research involving the performance of professional services firms found “horizontal teamwork,” the ability of teams from across the organization to connect and collaborate with colleagues that possess contrasting but complementary expertise, helped workers “learn more, sell more and gain skills faster.”

The enemy of cross-functional communication is, of course, the silo mentality.

It was a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee relations executive, Phil Sensor who, in 1988, first coined the term “functional silo syndrome” to describe the propensity for large organizations to break down into independent silos where information and expertise is hoarded in departmental or operating units.

Given the origins of the term, and the language used to describe it, you might assume that functional silo syndrome is a structural issue. In other words, a problem that will find its solution in the way in which a company is physically organized.

You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Functional silo syndrome really begins and ends with leadership mindset and behaviors.

It almost always boils down to leadership. And coaching.

Researchers and leadership development experts believe silos reflect conflicted leadership teams – ones that reflect an organizational culture where competition among business units is valued more than collaboration – is at the heart of the silo mentality. And when you start to dig deeper into the culture you realize that silos are built by leaders who have simply not been told how to operate without them.

So what can you do about it? 

Typical advice in this niche of leadership development will include “work towards common goals,” “improve communication,” “deploy collaborative software,” and “implement joint-meeting strategies.” The problem is that while all these are good suggestions, they won’t resonate with a leader who has a deeply embedded silo mindset.

Like so many negative leadership traits, a silo mindset requires intensive effort to rewire their behaviors and mindsets. You need to create an entirely new consciousness among leaders about the nature of the organization and emphasize open and non-judgemental collaboration over internal competition.

This can be done through leadership coaching.

Leaders in organizations that have successfully broken-down silos will tell you that it can be a jarring experience. Silos can function like a security blanket, providing leaders with an environment they can control. Silo leaders often lack in confidence and self-awareness- they tend to prioritize their own success over the success of the entire organization.

Compassion, empathy, self-awareness and the ability to listen are just some of the qualities that come from one-on-one coaching, and from the adoption of a coaching mindset.

Leaders who have had the benefit of coaching, and fully and completely embraced a coaching mindset, will seek out opportunities to collaborate and share.

As is the case with most leadership challenges, the best way to fend off silos is to cultivate a leadership culture that has no interest in building them in the first place.

Make a head-start on bringing that kind of cultural outlook to your organization with EZRA’s world-class employee coaching, built to fit into today’s working life. We’ve redesigned leadership coaching for the modern age to help transform people through affordable, scalable and high-impact solutions, with equitable access through our world-class coaching app. Find out today how digital coaching could make a big difference to your organization.

Explore More Insights