Communicating in the virtual work world can be challenging, but communicating between departments sometimes feels impossible – and that’s probably due to a silo mentality. A ClearCompany survey showed that employees, leadership, and educators agree that 86% of workplace failures are due to ineffective communication. So how do you eliminate the silo mentality from your remote workplace if it’s holding you back? Dr. Bill Howatt, Ph.D., ED.d., founder and CEO of Howatt HR, has some tips for deconstructing the silo mentality and restoring communication to your workplace.

What is a silo mentality?

A silo mentality, Howatt says, is a knowledge management plan faced by many organizations. It includes resistance to sharing information with other workers, teams, departments, or leaders.

“This prevents sharing of tacit knowledge (like institutional knowledge that’s not written down) that can reduce operational efficiency and impact quality and safety,” Howatt says. “This hurts the organization’s results and reputation.”

Research from the University of South Africa notes that silo mentalities can result in fractured organizational relationships and splitting of individuals within teams.

Howatt adds that a silo mentality can happen intentionally or unintentionally. If it happens unintentionally, it might be due to lousy tech, disengaged leadership, and fewer opportunities for interdepartmental communication. The remote work environment, Howatt says, is especially prone to a silo mentality.

“Barriers can make causal interaction harder,” Howatt says. “Some remote workers find it hard to fit in with their team and feel socially disconnected.”

If silo mentality happens intentionally, it could be due to intentional malice from leadership or coworkers.

“Leaders who role-model negative attitudes towards other groups can cause silo mentality,” Howatt says. Studies show that even a generally poor attitude at work can decrease productivity and increase interpersonal conflicts. This can harm not only a company’s efficiency but its corporate culture as well.

Howatt also says that a silo mentality can be an institutional flaw that comes out of outdated policies or procedures that don’t take remote work processes into account.

“If there’s no opportunity to engage with other groups or no mandate for knowledge management and sharing of information,” he says, “teams focus internally and do not see or understand the value of sharing.”

Silo mentality in remote and hybrid work

Remote work can cause issues with a silo mentality, but the hybrid workplace produces even more ambiguity around communication.

“Hybrid workplaces create more uncertainty when teammates may be in the office because of the flexibility of days and time a worker may be on work off work – and on-site and off-site,” Howatt says. “This can create barriers to sharing information within the team and outside of the team.”

Some experts refer to silo mentality as tribal, as it separates teams into cliques. As workplace roles are becoming more specialized and team members have specific detail-oriented jobs, it can feel onerous to explain the eccentricities of a program or the nuances of project management to someone who doesn’t speak your language. Add to that the difficulty of communicating via messenger or email, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for silo mentality.

“Regardless of work arrangements, all workers and leaders must understand and buy into the importance of sharing tacit and explicit knowledge,” Howatt says. “Workers and leaders may not know what to share; may not understand the importance of sharing, or may not feel comfortable reaching out formally and informally.”

Even if you just plan on sharing the important pieces of information to ensure brevity, there should be a general expectation or agreement around what’s relevant and what’s not.

“Be provided with clear expectations on what kind of information is a must to share,” Howatt says. “Remove assumptions and unnecessary hoarding or not sharing of information.”

The unintentional silo mentality

Even if you’re not holding back on information because you think others wouldn’t understand it, you could be reticent to share with other teams for other reasons.

“It may be easier for introverts or those who do not know many people to keep to themselves than share,” Howatt says. In the remote world, this is especially the case for those with meeting anxiety or fatigue. “Not everyone is comfortable interacting – networking and relationship-building are skills that not all workers have.”

You might also have someone on your team or a team you’re working with who isn’t as devoted to the company’s mission as you are. They might see excessive communication as above their pay grade.

“Employees who come to work for a paycheck have different motivations and intentions than those who report to help the organization achieve its purpose,” Howatt says. And those employees with their cameras off during meetings or who don’t respond to messages quickly might be more likely to be siloed.

Eliminating silo mentality

If silo mentality is holding your workplace back, the good news is that there are practical, easy ways to eliminate it – even in the remote workplace.

“Information is power,” Howatt says, “and in a data-driven world, it’s critical to get it right. Doing so needs a plan to prevent siloing from putting the organization at risk.”

The step-by-step plan

“Create a plan and educate leaders about the plan, their role, and why knowledge management is critical for the organization’s success,” Howatt says. “It is helpful to begin with a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach to ensure the initiatives for sharing formal (like SOP for explicit) and informal (like customer frustration) information to protect all groups.”

It’s imperative that employees actually participate and execute the plan while constantly tweaking and adjusting it to fit everyone’s needs. Think of it less as instilling a plan to fix a problem and more about changing company culture at large.

“A plan that works focuses on habits, not information. Information is useless without transformation,” Howatt says. “Creating a sharing culture takes intention and follow-through.”

Dr. Howatt provides the following steps for a plan that educates and informs all participating particles about silo mentality:

1. Frame what silo mentality is and why it hurts the organization
2. Explore factors that contribute and brainstorm with workers and leaders
3. Discuss if there was an intention to silo or not
4. Present how the team can avoid siloing
5. Review how the program will be measured
6. Execute the program

He concludes that with the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach, you can continue to develop and fine-tune these plans until they’re a good fit for your team and the teams you’re working alongside.

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