Breaking Down Silos at Work
Creating Effective Relationships With Other Departments
At some point, you'll likely need support, input or resources from another department in your organization. Or, other teams will approach yours for information, assistance or approval.
But working with other departments isn't always as simple as it sounds. Their priorities and processes may conflict with yours. They may seem reluctant to share their knowledge or expertise. Or, particularly in large organizations, they may not even know that your department exists! This can lead to confusion and frustration on both sides.
However, the symptoms of a "silo" mentality are often the result of poor communication, misunderstandings or a lack of awareness, rather than an unwillingness to cooperate.
So, in this article, we discuss how you can overcome these issues by learning about the other departments in your organization, the work that they do, and how their activities fit into the "bigger picture."
Why You Should Avoid a Silo Mentality
Your relationships with other departments don't just affect your own work, or that of your team. They also impact your organization as a whole.
Departments that collaborate effectively, that understand one another's roles in achieving the organization's goals, and that value one another's input, make for a more efficient workplace.
Because they work together and share the most up-to-date information, their tasks will more likely be finished on schedule and to a higher standard. Morale is improved and their people are more inclined to "pitch in" when necessary.
Ultimately, strong interdepartmental relationships can build higher-functioning, more profitable and innovative organizations, which benefits everybody.
Getting to Know Other Departments
The key to working effectively with other departments is to understand the different business functions within your organization, and to get to know the people who work in them.
To do this, you can use the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How (or 5W1H) approach:
1. WHO Makes up the Other Department?
Start by learning the names and roles of as many people as possible in each department. You might ask, for example:
- Who is in charge of the department?
- Who is your contact there?
- Who is the best person to approach with your most common requests?
- Who can help with ad hoc queries?
- Who in your own team or department already has a good relationship with someone in the other department?
Space-sharing initiatives such as hot desking, open-plan working, and communal rest areas can encourage informal or "organic" interaction between co-workers in different departments.
2. WHAT Does the Other Department Do?
Get to know what each department does – and doesn't – do. That way, you'll avoid wasting anybody's time with irrelevant queries or requests.
Many departments have a far broader range of responsibilities than you might expect. For example, procurement doesn't just "buy stuff," and finance does more than just the payroll! Departments' roles can also vary widely between organizations, so be prepared to challenge your assumptions.
The best way to find out what a department really does is to speak with the people there about their work, and about how it relates to yours.
3. WHY Does Each Department Exist in Your Organization?
It's useful to understand the subtle difference between what a department does and why it exists.
For example, does your organization have an in-house IT or customer services team, rather than outsourcing these functions? If so, there may be key strategic or operational reasons for this decision. (You can learn more about this in our article, The Outsourcing Decision Matrix.)
Each department's activities will likely also tie in with your organization's overall mission and values. Learning how each department contributes to the broader vision can "bring home" the importance of working together toward a common goal.
4. WHERE Does Each Department Work?
Find out where each department is located. Is it in your office, at the company headquarters, or somewhere else? Do different teams work in different countries or time zones?
Use this information to plan how and when you will contact these teams, and to schedule virtual meetings, for example. Showing respect for others' working patterns and preferences is an easy but effective way to strengthen your relationships with them.
Grasp any opportunities to meet remote-working colleagues face-to-face. Visiting other states or countries may seem like a costly luxury, but it can build rapport and foster stronger connections that could save money, time and effort in the long run.
5. WHEN Do Other Departments Need to Get Involved?
Ignoring established routines that are proven to work, or failing to involve the right departments at the right times, are surefire ways to reinforce an "us and them" mentality.
So, be sure that you understand your company's operational procedures and guidelines, and that you follow them! Bear in mind that policies are in place to ensure the best outcomes (read our article, Why the Rules Are There, for more on this).
In some cases, your dealings with other departments will be more ad hoc – when your computer breaks down, for example, or if you need occasional advice on legal issues. In these cases, use your best judgement to decide who to contact, and when, depending on the type of request, the department in question, and the urgency of the situation.
Another way to break down silos is to ask other departments for advice or guidance even when you're not mandated by policy to do so. This demonstrates that you value their opinions and experience.
When you're working with other departments, keep them "on board" by ensuring that they are up to date with any changes or delays that will affect their work. You can read more about this in our article, What Is Stakeholder Management?
6. HOW Does the Process Work?
The final step is to consider the specifics of how each department operates.
Again, be sure to follow the appropriate policies and procedures. But also take the time to complete any formalities that a department requires in order to deal with your request.
Find out how much they time they need to do the job, provide as much supporting information as possible, fill in any necessary forms, find out whose signoff is required, and so on.
Having all of this information to hand shows that you understand and respect the processes of the other department. And remember, you'll more likely get a positive response if you've already learned who works in the department, found out what they can and cannot help with, and used their preferred method of contact.
Building Balanced Interdepartmental Relationships
Sometimes, relationships between departments remain fragile, even if you've laid solid groundwork by using the steps above. So, it's important to follow a few basic rules of conduct.
First, remember that the people you approach for assistance will likely be dealing with requests from other departments, too, whose issues may be a higher priority. So, don't "fly off the handle" if your request can't be addressed immediately. If it's appropriate, try to ease their burden by taking on some of the work yourself.
Also, be sure to treat interdepartmental relationships as a "two-way street." You'll unlikely enjoy good partnerships if you make regular demands on other people's time but seldom offer anything in return.
For example, could you provide support for the other department's projects, or for initiatives that they want to implement? Perhaps you could send a company-wide communication thanking the other team, or bring a particularly helpful individual to the attention of senior managers.
This can also help to build trust, which is essential if different departments are to work effectively together. To find out more about building and maintaining trust, read our articles, Building Trust and Blanchard's ABCD Model of Trust.
By finding ways to give, as well as take, you'll more likely be able to banish silos from your organization and build enduring, productive relationships in their place.
Silos – departments or teams working in isolation – can restrict efficiency and innovation in an organization. You can break down a silo mentality by building stronger, more collaborative relationships between departments.
To do this, find out who is in each department, what the department does, why it exists, where it is located, when you should involve it in your own team's work, and how it operates.
When you receive assistance or resources from another department, offer your help and support in return. This builds trust, and increases the sense that you are all working together toward your organization's wider goals.
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