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Are workplace silos worse in non-profits, particularly social services?

Without a doubt, silos in the workplace permeate all industries, both for profit and not. However, after more than a year of spending significant time working with an assortment of non-profits, I’m left wondering if perhaps the problem is more commonplace in these organizations. And if not more common, then are workplace silos more difficult to tackle and resolve, especially in social service agencies?

When silos develop, departments or groups of employees are not willing to share resources, knowledge or expertise cross-departmentally. Often groups will hoard information to the detriment of other departments and, ultimately, the organization itself. This behavior is not productive and is born out of a loyalty for a particular group, instead of for the company.

At the crux of social service work is the development of relationships with those being served, with the goal of building trust and working towards change. The inherent nature of the work then can create a dynamic in which an employee becomes protective over a client relationship and possibly even hoards crucial information. When social service employees are not sharing resources, or working together to support a program participant, then the worse kind of damage can be done.

I also wonder if the constant crisis over budget and lack of funding can play a role in creating, and maintaining, workplace silos in non-profits. Often, silos are built because one group creates boundaries and self-protective measures at the expense of the good of the entire organization. But maybe folks are nervous that lay-offs are coming, and the self-protection is about anxiety and job preservation! These are real concerns in many non-profits and can really affect morale.

So, what can we do? No rocket science here or suggestions that can’t be found with a quick google search. My recommendations for some conventional (and others perhaps more nontraditional) ways of improving staff engagement and collaboration include:

  • Job sharing/shadowing across departments, programs and sites – Make sure folks know what their co-workers do and can appreciate the unique challenges of each role in the organization.

  • Cross-departmental staff meetings - Don’t have meetings just to have meetings but create purpose and opportunities for engagement. Switch things up between physical sites so everyone feels included!

  • Collaborative leadership team – No surprise here, problems usually start at the top. Ensure that your management team is role modeling the behavior they want to see in their staff.

  • Regular reminders of mission and values - In the end, everyone should be on board to work towards a common goal and sometimes folks just need to be reminded of that.

Non-profit work is difficult and isn’t likely to get any easier. It my experience, working in a culture of collaboration, support and understanding made some of the hardest days easier to bear. I believe if organizations stay on top of the problem of workplace silos, they can likely be eliminated altogether.

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