Release departments from "functional silos"

Dear Joan:
Our credit union has been in business for over 50 years and we pride ourselves on building a strong relationship with the members we serve. I have been an employee for over 10 years and a manager for 5 years.

Although it probably isn't visible to the members, the managers have noticed some increase in the breakdown of communications between departments. For example, the other day, one of the managers overheard a group of tellers talking in the hall about some of the back office people. When the manager approached, all the talking stopped.

The managers have also noticed a lot more complaints about other departments not being cooperative. When errors are pointed out or performance is discussed, employees typically blame someone else.

At a staff meeting of managers, we decided to discuss the situation with our respective departments. The front line people with the most member contact complained that the bookkeepers weren't fast enough. They also said they felt "put down" and unappreciated by the back office people.

The bookkeeper and some of the other office staff were frustrated by the way tellers turned in their paperwork. They described some of the front line people as "slack" or "lazy" because they were making so many errors. They said the tellers weren't dedicated and just didn't give the right attention to their work.

Now the managers are undecided about how to address these concerns. Some feel that we should call a meeting and explain that they just have to work together better. Other mangers think that's a bad idea. What do you think?

Although it may seem like the logical thing to do, calling a meeting of both groups to tell them to get along better might backfire. Here's why: you're assuming that the problem is caused by lack of cooperation. Based on the consulting I've done with many similar organizations, I think the cause of the problem is more complex than that. If you call them together they may feel resentful because they could perceive that you're scolding them like children.

These two groups are in "functional silos." If you've ever been in a silo, you know that the walls are very thick and the only way you can look is up. In other words, each department has thick walls that isolate it from the other functions in the credit union and each group is beholding to their own priorities and goals. There is little understanding about what the other functions do and how it all works together across the organization.

Because the tellers are faced with demanding customers all day, they probably don't have much time to fill out paperwork and still meet the credit union's service goals. If there are no slow times and overtime isn't allowed, the paperwork will suffer.

If the back office people have no contact with the members they will have little insight or empathy for what it's like on the front line. In addition, perhaps the reporting procedures are cumbersome and could be streamlined or improved in some way.

Here's an approach that will get at the root of the problem:

1.      At the next managers' meeting talk about ways to cross-train and rotate employees. Perhaps each employee should be rotated into the teller position and key back office positions. If this is done several things are likely to happen.

·         Each group will gain new empathy and understanding about other people's jobs.

·        They will be able to make improvements to forms and procedures that are contributing to the errors.

·        Your staff will be more highly skilled and flexible.

·        Teamwork will improve.

2.      In addition, cross-functional meetings held on a regular basis will help both groups resolve their problems. At these meetings, management should provide the "big picture" information about how the credit union is doing on it's overall goals. Unless both groups understand what the overall vision is, they will continue to stay focused on their own myopic priorities. In fact, in one of your first meetings you can ask for input on how to design this new cross -training process. Perhaps a cross-functional task force can develop it.

3.      Management needs to examine the structure and reward system to make sure it isn't adding to the problem. For instance, it may make sense for both groups to report to the same person. In the case of your reward system, make sure that incentives and bonuses aren't causing problems. For instance, if you are rewarding the tellers with bonuses for selling a new service, it may be taking up extra time that usually went to other things such as accurate paperwork. If that's the case, why not enlist the help of the back office people and let them share in the bonus? If only one group is eligible for extra rewards it can cause dissention between groups and fracture teamwork.

When you call the two groups together, why not take a proactive, non-blaming tone and say, "The managers realize that there have been some problems between departments. We recognize that all of you have been doing your best but some of our systems may have been causing some of the problems. We'd like to ask your help in making some changes that will help everyone to do their jobs better." Then introduce some of the new ideas you want to try and ask for their help. It will be much better received than saying, "You must get along."

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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