We have great leaders. They just don’t work together collaboratively. What we accomplish together is sometimes less impactful than the sum of our individual parts, because we spend precious time and energy protecting individual or departmental turf. This is silo mentality.
Silos are artificial boundaries put up to accomplish personal goals and keep others (perceived outsiders) from interfering with progress. A silo mindset produces sub-units that fail to share information, resources, or decision making.
Why are silos a problem in congregations? They encourage local optimization (personal, department or committee agendas) at the expense of alignment around mission. Silos diminish the capacity of the whole. When allowed to flourish, silos advance favoritism and scapegoating. They contribute to secrecy, resource hoarding and an absence of trust.
Many congregations try to address silos through behavioral promises, “We will do a better job of sharing information, resources and decision making”. If silos could be minimized through simple behavioral intent, we would have figured out how to eliminate them by now.
Complex organizational dynamics give birth to silos. In the paragraphs that follow we will explore five contributing conditions. By addressing these five conditions you can reduce or eliminate the destructive power of silos in your congregation and breakthrough to greater collaboration.
Lack of Incentive
In a healthy congregation, leaders will collaborate so long as there is reason to do so. We often promote collaboration as a virtue without articulating what purpose collaboration will serve. It takes energy to sustain a collaborative culture. If we want staff and lay leaders to invest energy in collaboration, then we need to identify a clear and compelling case for doing so.
It begins with clarity about the overarching mission that unites us in ministry. This is no small task in and of itself. But then we also need each member of the team, committee, or board to link their personal passion to the overarching mission. We can ask them what they need from the rest of us to pursue their passion. We can identify our intersecting points of need and interest, the places where my ministry needs intersect with yours.
Collaboration will naturally emerge if the case for crossing barriers becomes personally and departmentally compelling and satisfying.
Focusing Primarily on Resources
Silos flourish when our primary focus is on the allocation of scarce resources. When the conversation is always about who gets what resource, people and departments become fearful. Individuals seek to preserve and promote their own needs and agendas.
First Church went through a rocky pastoral transition. During the interim time period the budget took a hard hit. Finding a new pastor took longer than anyone anticipated. Leaders hunkered down to get by with less. The allocation of resources became the default mission of the congregation for a period of two years. By the time the new senior minister arrived silos were firmly entrenched on the staff team and in the committee and board structure.
Once the new pastor arrived and found a way to turn the primary conversation towards mission, and away from resource allocation, the silos diminished.
Lack of Accountability
In some congregations favored leaders or departments get whatever resources they want without needing to demonstrate need or impact. In other instances, players who fail to perform as needed, or people who introduce dysfunction into the congregation are not held accountable for their behavior.
In such environments constituents learn to protect themselves from neglect, abuse or dysfunction by focusing only on what is in front of them. The result is an entire congregational system that hoards information, decision making and resources.
When silos exist due to lack of accountability, the solution is to establish clear performance expectations (essential functions, core competencies, performance goals) for each member of the team and every department. People must be held accountable for meeting those expectations, with natural and logical consequences for failure to perform.
Once it becomes apparent that health and good performance are rewarded, and that inappropriate behavior is addressed, shared communication and decision making will naturally reemerge.
Poor Organizational Design
Organizational design theory teaches us that hierarchical structures work against collaboration. We have learned that flatter, more decentralized structures invite collaboration. This is true in theory.
However, collaboration is possible in every structural design model. Similarly, silos can emerge within any organizational design. Flat structures produce silos when they become unwieldy and unmanageable. Hierarchical structures produce silos when we fail to create logical linkages between organizational sub-units.
If your congregation is struggling with silo mentality, take a look at your organizational design to make certain that it can handle the size and complexity of the congregation. Does your senior minister have too many direct reports to provide effective supervision? Are there too many committees reporting into your board structure?
Make certain that there are solid integrating mechanisms in your organizational design. Integrating mechanisms include things like effective meeting structures that delegate planning and decision making to appropriately sized decision making groups. Integrating mechanisms also include the shared supervision or oversight of ministry areas that need to logically coordinate work.
Absence of Trust
An absence of trust rarely develops from a single incident or violation. People have learned over time that others cannot be trusted, that being vulnerable gets you nowhere, and that sharing resources and information generally leads to loss or punishment.
A team or board that is mistrustful cannot simply declare a new day and become instantaneously collaborative. The team has to learn its way back to trustworthiness. New sprigs of trust emerge when we make small commitments to one another and then deliver on those promises.
A good way to restore trust is to establish a behavioral covenant. Clearly define acceptable healthy behaviors and teach people conversational techniques for holding one another accountable when unacceptable behaviors emerge. Collaboration will slowly build as team members learn their way back to health.
Breaking down silos is not easy because silos don’t have simple origins. They are the result of complex organizational dynamics that must be addressed simultaneously. However, silos do not have to become your organizational status quo. Begin where you are. The benefits are worth the investment of time and energy.
Susan Beaumont is a coach, educator, and consultant who has worked with hundreds of faith communities across the United States and Canada. Susan is known for working at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality. She specializes in large church dynamics, staff team health, board development, and leadership during seasons of transition.
With both an M.B.A. and an M.Div., Susan blends business acumen with spiritual practice. She moves naturally between decision-making and discernment, connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. You can read more about her ministry at susanbeaumont.com.