"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a new feature focusing on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

There's an African proverb that states, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others." This conforms to what I have experienced: that collaboration can be time-consuming but the long-term result is almost always better than the one produced by a more expedient, head-down effort.

It used to surprise me when co-op CEOs complained about silos. Most electric cooperatives are not that large and it's not uncommon for co-op employees to be wearing multiple hats. Let's not forget too that cooperation is a core principle of our co-op business model!

So why do we have silos? As humans we have a natural tendency to want to work hard and stay focused in our particular areas of expertise. At electric co-ops, we have some natural conditions that can promote silos, such as inside vs. outside work and district or branch office vs. main office. Silos then are not just a big company problem. Nor are they limited to specific organizational types. Silos are rooted more in mindset than in headcount, geography or organizational structure.

Silos form over time and can be hard to break, but they are important for leaders to address.

Does Your Co-op Have a Silo Problem?

Here are some of the symptoms of a silo mindset:

  1. Changes take a long time to implement: Silos can bog down a change initiative when your team does not understand how a process or procedure change will impact the work from start to finish.
  2. Blame game: When employees take a "pass the baton" approach to their work, it's easy to point fingers at others when problems arise.
  3. Rivalry and turf battles: If employees view challenges at work as "us vs. them," worry a lot about their team getting credit, or look at new projects as a chance to one up another department or team, then you probably have silos.

Here Are Three Suggestions for Silo Busting:

  1. Unified vision: If you have one vision statement, but every department interprets it differently, then you don't have unity and that can lead to disconnects.
  2. Shared goals and priorities: With that unified vision, leaders need to create a commitment to collective success. Establish goals and measure progress at cross-functional or organization-wide levels.
  3. Define collaboration specifically: We seem to expect people to know what collaboration is intuitively and how to do it, but ask your team to define* it at a future meeting and see how many answers you get. Be explicit about what behavior you want to see and then model that behavior consistently.

Ready to Be a Silo-Buster?

If you make a concerted effort to knock them down, you'll see gains in productivity and employee engagement, both things that ultimately translate to better service for your members.

Below are some additional resources about breaking down silos:

* An interesting side note, one online definition for collaboration gave the following two definitions:

  1. The action of working with someone to produce or create something.
  2. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy.

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 25-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.