How To Turn A Silo Into a Subculture

Photo by Melanie Stander

Last week I ran back-to-back virtual culture workshops for clients in Australia/NZ. Ahead of the workshops we undertake a listening exercise and ask staff for their insights on the team culture. In both exercises comments such as this were made:

  • ‘We’re seen as siloed’
  • ‘We’re siloed in our thinking’
  • ‘We find it hard to break out of our silos’
  • ‘Communication is difficult between the silos’.

Do any of these statements ring true for you?

They are prevalent in almost every survey that we undertake prior to program commencement. And they always present teams in a negative light. The implication is that they are difficult to break into and the people within them don’t contribute to the greater good.

The word silo is generally used to describe a dysfunctional subculture within an overall organisational culture. These are teams where there is little empathy, compassion, communication, collaboration or innovation. Just a bunch of people that show up every day, focus on what they need to get done and do it … to varying degrees of quality. Or else, they are teams that aren’t very good at working with other teams.

And yet, all teams actually start out as silos. Their success in breaking out of this structure depends on how quickly the manager of the team can help them to define what it means to be a vibrant subculture.

But what is a subculture?

Well, organisations are made up of subcultures, they exist everywhere.

Groups of people are generally brought together by technical expertise (be it in IT, engineering, finance, gardening, field sales, legal, marketing etc.) or to work on unique projects aimed at helping the organisation to hit its targets and ultimately achieve its vision.

Subcultures contribute to the organisation culture by defining not only what it means to live the values in their particular area, but also by defining how they’ll work together to achieve their vision (in line with that of the organisation).

This provides the team with purpose, understanding and a commitment to hold themselves accountable to what they’ve agreed. It also provides a connection to other subcultures who are looking to do likewise.

When teams undertake similar team building activities, a common language is created that can then be shared across the organisation and thus reduce the likelihood of silos occuring.

Some leaders are experts at creating subcultures and build environments that their members try to replicate elsewhere when they move on. These leaders stand out from managers that don’t invest time and effort to define their subculture.

Getting the balance right

Managers who don’t invest the time in team building just expect culture to happen, or else see it as a low priority activity when set against day-to-day work. The irony of this approach is that quality day-to-day work is only consistently achieved through well defined subcultures.

Just as it’s possible to put too little effort into defining a subculture, it’s also possible to overdo it and have too much culture. Some teams have too many nicknames, ceremonies, systems only they use, or have developed their own language. At this point the culture has become a positive, yet still dysfunctional, subculture or ‘cult’.

Getting this balance just right is a difficult yet important skill to master. Every manager, regardless of where they sit within an organisation structure, has to learn how to become great at building vibrant subcultures. All too often we assume this is a skill people will have because they’ve been part of a team themselves, but in my experience this is not always the case.

Once learned, however, the skill of building great subcultures can be applied everywhere.

For any organisation to have a consistently vibrant culture, it requires team managers everywhere to be deliberate about defining a subculture of high performance, then continually investing in it to ensure that it stays that way. If you have just one silo (or dysfunctional subculture) then there’s a good chance that it will pull the overall culture of the organisation down with it. Every team starts as a silo, yet it’s only through managers who really care about creating a safe subculture that supports productive work that vibrancy can ever be achieved and maintained.

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Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot