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Why breaking down silos is critical to working better together

By Faye Wai

7 min read

Why breaking down silos is critical to working better together
Image by Anahi Alanis

Breaking down silos is a core way to improve cross-team collaboration. That’s why leaders should pay attention to this problem. But how do you know if your workplace suffers from a damaging silo mentality? 

When you reflect on your organization, would you describe it as a collection of sealed-off departments with few links between them? Is critical information trapped, inaccessible, or sequestered? Do members in one department seem to think differently than people in another department?

If you answered yes to any of these, silos exist in your company. Thankfully, you’re not alone. According to a PwC survey, 55% of organizations work in silos—they’re a common issue in companies, especially larger ones. The disadvantages are vast and costly. Working in silos obstructs communication, hinders productivity, leads to resentment and animosity, and generally just makes work a lot more painful than it needs to be. In North America, it’s said that collaboration and communication silos cost businesses around 7 hours per week, totaling more than 350 hours per year.

As Jamie Notter explains, “What one department does end up producing a result that causes trouble for another department, either immediately or (more likely) down the road. Silos reinforce the ‘we’ve always done it that way’ syndrome.”

Fortunately, they can be brought down. Let’s take a closer look at how to break down silos and save your organization (and its employees) from these pesky roadblocks.

Table of Contents

3 Major types of silos

How do silos form?

4 effective ways to break down silos across teams


What are silos? The three major types of silos in business and their impacts

There are a few types of silos I’m going to talk about in this article. They are:

  • Organizational silos: These describe the division of organizations into departments, sub-departments, even sub-companies. They divide up and bracket different types of workers and skill sets as operationally autonomous entities whose objective is to stay focused on their specific goals. This becomes a problem when there’s very little interaction or information-sharing between discrete departments.
  • Information silos: These are often the result of the above (sub)division of labor. When communication between different functions breaks down, information is no longer adequately shared and, instead, remains trapped within departments, often to the detriment of the overall organization.
  • Silo mentality: These silos of the mind are even more damaging than information silos because they’re the unexamined assumptions and ingrained thought patterns that influence everyday decision-making within teams. They’re the result of departmental biases and information hoarding, and over time, can lead to an insular, narrow-minded way of thinking that spells doom for organizations. Once you get trapped in one of these silos, if you’re able to realize it, it’s challenging to find an exit.

How do silos form, and who builds them?

Ever wondered how do silos even crop up in the first place? 

Silos are generally not intentional. They’re not the work of any one person. Instead, they arise due to a constellation of organizational problems, weak leadership, poor teamwork, personality clashes, and professional disagreements.

1. Communication hierarchies

Up to 20 hours per month are wasted due to poor collaboration and communication. It adds up to a whopping 6 weeks per year of being unproductive! 

As information trickles down from the top, it might get filtered through cynical, resentful people who don’t believe in what they’re working on. This may be rooted in a mistrust of their leadership team, resulting in a failure to share information with people outside their departments. Teammates loyal to a specific leader might form cliques and share information only with people within that circle. In cases like this, the employees at the bottom might have no idea what’s going on with the rest of the company.

This kind of mentality starts with professional disagreements and personality clashes. It ends with the eventual breakdown of cross-department information flows, which affects the everyday working conditions of individuals across the organization. And once the walls go up, it’s difficult to bring them down again.

2. Misaligned management

A conflicted leadership team is another reason why silos crop up. If egotistical leaders disagree on the best path forward, continue down a path they don’t believe in, or fail to communicate why a particular path is the right one, those (personal or professional) conflicts will spread among their teams. Power struggles between leaders can be very apparent to the rest of the group.

Extreme focus on a particular aspect of a company can lead to blind spots and a lack of knowledge and concern for what’s going on outside that department. Additionally, as Felix Martin astutely points out, “specialization leads to bureaucratic rivalry, corporate infighting, and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”

3. Overspecialization

Silos can arise when specialization gets out of control. What starts with good intentions—forming autonomous departments around specific skill sets, goals, and projects—can turn dysfunctional if departments get hyper-focused on only their tasks and objectives.

Extreme focus on a particular aspect of a company can lead to blind spots and a lack of knowledge and concern for what’s going on outside that department. Additionally, as Felix Martin astutely points out, “specialization leads to bureaucratic rivalry, corporate infighting, and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”

4 effective ways to break down silos across teams

This is tricky. Ideally, silos are predicted early on and dealt with as companies grow. But that’s just not how things always pan out. The more entrenched silos are, the more challenging it’ll be to bring them down, so it’s crucial to identify and locate their causes as they become a problem for your organization.

1. Reach out to and align with other departments

Getting acquainted with a different department’s concepts and daily practices, close enough to understand how they intersect with the ideas and practices of your own team, is one way of flattening silos. To encourage this, leaders should always set clear expectations and protocols. It also helps to initiate cross-functional collaboration projects that challenge the boundaries between separate departments. 

This can take the form of recurring interdepartmental meetings, breakout sessions, or project work. It’s important to find commonalities and emphasize how the departments work in concert to achieve a common goal. Unifying the long-term vision of the organization is critical here.

During their first two weeks at Jostle, new hires make the rounds of every department and meet directly with each team leader. This ensures newcomers get acquainted with other leaders, teams, projects, and ideas from day one. In a way, it demystifies other departments (for example, clarifies our approach to customer service), creating a unified vision. It also gives the new hire a more holistic idea of what the company is about.

2. Understand that it’s a group effort

You’ll need a unified leadership team that spearheads regular communication around common goals. But recognize that repairing divides and demolishing silos is an ongoing process and is everyone’s responsibility, not just leadership’s. You can’t force two distinct departments to pay attention to what the other is doing, especially when there’s not much overlap or relevancy.

Rather, it’s more about encouraging individual team members to step out of the comfort zones of their team or department. To truly do away with silos, effort needs to be made to learn about what other teams are working on to meet the organization’s objectives. Employees are better equipped to collaborate and work cross-functionally by understanding how each puzzle piece fits. Instilling curiosity in your people is going to be critical.

3. Identify information blockages and open up lines of communication 

Dealing with an information hoarder or a data bottleneck can be a challenge. If the cause is larger than any one person, though, senior managers will need to incorporate new ways of sharing information with other departments to get the word out. This can include All Hands meetings where different departments host Q&A sessions. Or, consider adding a weekly Heads Up style meeting to your company calendar. At this type of meeting, attendees can quickly learn what each department has been working on the week prior and what’s coming up in future weeks. 

In addition, 87% of employees think that leaders should consider implementing modern technology solutions in the workplace. You could introduce a company platform like Jostle that empowers various stakeholders to make announcements on their latest projects. Or, you could considerintroducing project management tools or better refine your existing tool’s settings for more transparency. With better systems established to improve communication and visibility on work in progress, you’ll be well on your way to dismantling departmental silos across teams. 

4. Prioritize rebuilding trust

If your organization’s silos result from personal squabbles and lingering resentment, breaking them down can’t happen until trust returns. Teams and leaders who don’t trust each other won’t communicate openly and will have difficulty dismantling silos between their respective departments.

Your top priority to defeating the silo mindset is establishing a healthy company culture, including providing a psychologically safe workplace that encourages collaboration, vulnerability, and transparency. 

Building trust again, especially among sworn enemies, is less about singing kumbaya together and more about being honest with each other. Set up retrospectives and evaluation meetings after completing key projects. Telling the truth, being professional, and recognizing that they’re on the same team (even if they’re in different departments) is the path forward.


Opening up new lines of communication is essential to breaking down silos of all kinds. However, silos that limit the way departments think and behave are another issue altogether. Once people are stubbornly stuck in a certain world, a narrow frame of mind, it’s hard to get them thinking about the bigger picture again. But breaking down the real and imaginary boundaries of silos is one crucial first step.


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Faye Wai

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