Much has been written about the "silo mentality" plaguing American businesses. With companies tackling so many different areas and adding broader product lines, it seemed like an inevitable conclusion: People would become entrenched in their departments, becoming so consumed with getting their own work done that they rarely noticed -- or cared -- what others were doing.
This, of course, resulted in problems. Ninety-four percent of leaders believe that simply rearranging their workspaces would empower their teams to collaborate more, yet 64 percent persist in using traditional departmental arrangements. A fifth even organize their teams in a hierarchical structure, ensuring those low on the totem pole never interact with the powers that be. And when the highest-performing companies are 5.5 times more likely to encourage collaboration, those physical silos can become damaging.
The problem here isn't workspace arrangements or departmental separations -- the problem lies in the weak relationships most workplaces cultivate. Employees who feel "seen" are more likely to succeed, and one of the best ways to do that is by building subcultures, not demolishing them.
Aren't Silos and Subcultures the Same?
A silo is designed to contain things and hold them tight; a subculture develops to support people and hold them together. The former is about exclusion; the latter is focused on inclusion. Belonging to a group makes people feel infinitely more connected than general membership to a company ever could. And that's important for managers to remember, says Isa Watson, the CEO and founder of Envested, a workplace engagement tool.
"Managers tend to prioritize managing up, and that's a problem. They're doing it to look good to their superiors to get promoted, but their real power is with the people in their own organization," Watson explains. "Millennials are going to be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, and they want to have a greater diversity of roles in their career. A big reason for turnover is that they couldn't find or access opportunities they wanted in their current workplace."
Steve Adubato, Ph.D., agrees. "Truly getting to know your people will also present the potential to put them in situations where they can interact, connect, and find common ground with their colleagues," he says. "Often, in a way they wouldn't be able to do if you as a leader weren't aware enough to create such [an] environment."
By keeping a pulse on her team, a manager can balance managing up with managing down, using the information she receives in an executive meeting to provide opportunities to her direct reports and vice versa. Managers have more access to information than employees do; by remaining aware of both what employees want and what the organization needs, a manager can empower her team members and sponsor them in building their careers, strengthening the company in turn.
The Benefits of Subcultures
Subcultures benefit everybody involved, albeit in different ways. Employees garner more opportunities, better insight into their organization, and more longevity with their company. Midlevel managers who build subcultures develop reputations for not pigeonholing employees; they also have more power than they realize by directly supervising the people who do the daily work that makes a company successful.
"Subcultures are powerful when you're trying to protect the very elements and behaviors that really helped you thrive as an organization in the first place: innovation, a transparent culture," Watson says. "Managers who are creating cultures people want to be in also provide more incentive for their businesses to move toward those behaviors overall."
And that's good news for senior leaders who may feel threatened by midlevel managers influencing the organization: Strong cultures attract more talented employees and lower turnover, meaning managers building empowering subcultures draw people to the company for a longer period of time.
As David Champion at Harvard Business Review pointed out, social distance can be a bigger barrier in leaders' success. The more senior a leader is, and the longer he stays in an elevated position, the more distanced he is from his company's day-to-day happenings and whisperings. Information arrives through layers, meaning it's been distorted and watered down to appease -- or appeal to -- the senior executive. Because of this, midlevel managers should be viewed as the people with a pulse on what's going on, as well as the ones who have the influence to effect change within the organization.
How Midlevel Managers Can Do It Right
While many organizations may not be equipped -- or ready -- to overhaul their entire structure, there are ways midlevel managers can incorporate subcultures successfully.
1. Use core values as the foundation, but build from there.
There are fundamental values and missions a company wants to fulfill that shouldn't be adjusted; people who don't agree with these shouldn't be with the organization, period. But midlevel managers need to see the lay of the land so they can identify what makes their current employees feel connected and double down on what works for their group. Letting employees influence the cultural elements that are amplified removes the feeling of top-down leadership.
2. Survey employees.
Surveying employees to find out more about who they are can make a huge difference in how midlevel managers engage them, Watson says. Finding out their professional interests, as well as what they enjoy that's professionally adjacent, can influence what they do as a team: bike rides, off-site painting excursions, volunteering. Framing these conversations in the context of how managers can be helpful can result in more honesty as well; knowing whether an employee loves her position or thinks it's just OK compared to what she'd love to do is vital information. Who -- or what -- do your employees want exposure to in the organization?
3. Set quarterly goals in terms of team building and networking.
Hosting group get-togethers every quarter, using the information gathered and an allotted budget, ensures people get away from work and engage away from deadline-related stress. Doing the same thing regarding networking can keep midlevel managers and employees moving forward -- by committing to making two or three (internal or external) connections a quarter for her employees, a manager can keep her teammates feeling understood and valued.
Silos may be bad, but subcultures don't deserve to be cast in the same light. By empowering midlevel managers to build their own subcultures, companies can reap the benefits in terms of talent, engagement, and retention.