When we conducted the Best Christian Workplaces Employee Engagement Survey for Bible League International, we found that employees gave the ministry one of the highest scores we had ever seen for teamwork across departments. We asked the leadership team how they managed to do that so well. President and CEO Jos Snoep replied, “Well, the people on this team around this table are responsible, so let them tell you.” His humble attitude from the top demonstrates why Bible League International collaborates brilliantly across departments. (Story from Road to Flourishing: Eight Keys to Boost Employee Engagement and Well-being.)
In another example, Mike Johnson of Yakima Union Gospel Mission shared on the Best Christian Workplaces podcast: “Several years ago, we were a deeply siloed workplace. We've improved a lot, but not enough. We really have to be better, but it's hard across five locations, not to mention each department's daily urgency. One of the open-ended responses to our Employee Engagement Survey motivated me to continue to press on for better teamwork. Someone said, ‘You’ve given us a taste of this, now put the whole plate down in front of us, give us more.’”
How does your organization rate? Do you excel at collaboration, or struggle with silos?
Many team leaders see their own teams as having a great team culture, while they perceive other teams as not healthy or effective. How can there be healthy teams within an organization but an unhealthy culture overall? My experience in employee engagement work and building flourishing mission-level cultures have helped me see through the confusion and embrace a fuller definition of a healthy team.
Part of being a healthy team is having members who are good at their individual jobs, who collaborate with each other, and who have interpersonal skills that allow them to work effectively with those they serve. However, healthy teams that build a healthy culture for the organization have more than that. Healthy teams in a healthy culture have a vision-level view of their work, and they share and celebrate goals across teams. Practically speaking, this means that they understand their interdependence with other departments, and they respect other specialties and their unique contributions.
We often use the phrase "silos" to describe independently operating teams and the metaphor works. However, the solution to a silo isn’t as easy to visualize. Rather than “silos,” picture a medieval town. There are towers for lookouts and for protection from invaders. But if the citizens all retreat to the towers, then they are in a siege mentality. Citizens need a feeling of safety to leave the fortress towers and interact in the marketplace. Flourishing towns have bridges to facilitate trade and connection.
In your organization, you may feel safe in your tower, or silo, but you cannot flourish there. You need to leave the walls and move across bridges to fully engage and flourish.
Three Steps to Build Bridges
1. Normalize interaction across teams
As a team leader, you may be focused on building strong ties within your team and helping your team achieve their slice of the organizational mission. You also prioritize positive interaction with your boss. You may have little extra time or energy for interactions with your peers—other team leaders.
A Leadership 360 assessment in this case would show high scores from direct reports and your boss, but low scores from peers. This can be an indication of a siloed approach to accomplishing your job.
The neglect of peer relationships might not be intentional, but over time, it reinforces a narrow view of your team. While teams may come together in reaction to a crisis, there is no ongoing, intentional collaboration.
The remedy for this is to intentionally and regularly interact, communicate with, and find ways to collaborate with other team leaders. Rather than holding information close, freely share updates with peers. Ask them about key activities and challenges on their own teams. Make it a priority to schedule time for regular connections with other team leaders.
2. Build Relationships of Mutual Care
While the first step focuses on intentional interaction for specific organization-related purposes, relationship-building is another important aspect of trust and respect between teams. There’s nothing more powerful than getting to know colleagues and leaders across areas through intentional bonds of care. Informal meetings and social events all build goodwill and understanding that can sustain an organization during rocky times. This camaraderie can increase the willingness to work together on shared goals. Strong relational connections will also help employees assume the best of others when they encounter conflict.
3. Be Humble: Admit When You Need to Reset
If your organization has operated in silos for an extended period of time, with little thought to over-arching goals, thick walls may have developed between teams. Each team may be operating independently, with internal goals and processes that have been developed over time in the absence of a shared vision. And not only are teams separated, but they are suspicious of each other and don’t believe that other teams are effective or important. In this kind of situation, human nature is to protect the status quo. Leaving the silo seems dangerous.
It’s humbling to raise your hand as a team leader and go first, asking for a reset. Senior leaders and team leaders will need to come to the uncomfortable realization that their organization needs bridges. While it can feel like you are giving up the safety of your team, you are actually holding up the banner of the overall mission of the organization. You are pointing toward clarity in the vision for ministry impact and working to rally others toward this overarching commitment.
To build strong teamwork between teams, leaders need to forge consensus on organization-wide goals. The term “forge” for this process is intentional. Forging requires heat, pressure, and even some bending. Team leaders who catch the top-level vision will be willing to do some bending and take some heat to move everyone, together, toward the inspirational vision. An understanding of shared goals throughout your organization will build a “we are all in this together” attitude and foster collaboration.
Moving Toward a Culture of Bridge-Builders
If tearing down silos and building bridges for a collaborative workplace were easy, then the struggle with silos wouldn't be so common in workplaces. While it may not be simple, realizing the hope of a collaborative workplace with teams united on a common vision is possible. In my years of working with Ministry Partners, I’ve seen many organizations move toward flourishing.
You can start on the journey with the three steps outlined here: normalize interaction, build relationships, and humbly commit to a reset, forging shared goals.