How a culture of reciprocity can tear down silos

How a culture of reciprocity can tear down silos

People are reluctant to ask for help. Whether for fear of bothering colleagues or of appearing vulnerable themselves, people rarely make requests known. But research shows that we tend to underestimate the number of people out there who are willing to give time, ideas, and advice. The reluctance to ask is a contributor to the creation of silos in organisations.

One way to break this cultural habit is to encourage a culture of reciprocity. Technology company Humax developed a “Reciprocity Ring” exercise designed to foster an environment where people feel comfortable asking for the help or information they need, thus boosting collaboration and communication between silos. As knowledge is shared, cost and time savings are achieved. 

The exercise requires a small group. It goes like this: Each individual makes a request of the group (verbally and in writing on a sticky note). As each person makes their request, the notes are stuck on a notice board. Requests might be along the lines of “I am looking for a civil engineer to relocate to the UK.” Or, “I need advice on how to improve a process.”

As participants listen to each other’s requests, they consider ways they might be able to help – with expertise, resources, referral to the right contact, and so on. Participants then place sticky notes detailing this offer on the board alongside the original request, creating contact between requesters and contributors.

The exercise encourages giving by making it public. The more people see requests being fulfilled, the more they want to contribute, explains Santi Furnari, a strategy lecturer at Cass Business School.

As participants can contribute to one colleague’s request and themselves receive a contribution from a different person, it breaks them out of tit-for-tat reciprocal giving – ie, helping only those who have helped them in the past.

The exercise is designed to bring people from various functions and departments together and demonstrate to them that they can learn from each other. The company’s silos become evident as participants begin to realise they face similar, or even the same, challenges as colleagues in other areas of the business, but they have never spoken to each other before.

The simulation works best with a trained facilitator who can speed up interactions between people. Other success factors include a small number of participants in an informal setting, with no incentives offered for attendance, Furnari notes. Though the idea needs sponsorship from leaders, the leaders should not observe or participate in the exercise.

Those who benefit most from this approach acknowledge the contributions of others when they receive them and are willing to pay the help forward. Events often result in participants thinking about their everyday interactions in a different way and considering how they can connect people in their network who have similar interests.

Making effective requests for help

Ideally, the Reciprocity Ring exercise and breaking-the-silos simulations should be just the beginning of a longer-term process championed by the head of HR or learning and development.

One way to keep the momentum going would be to form teams of three or four people from different departments who have realised through the exercise that they are facing similar challenges and assign them a team project, letting them find solutions to their shared issue.

The outcomes should be celebrated and communicated widely throughout the organisation.

Lacking a formal internal champion, individuals can adopt the spirit of the Reciprocity Ring exercise in their everyday work practice. “It makes you start thinking about how to broaden your network and ask for help in a safe way outside your silo or immediate short-term network,” Furnari says.

How you communicate your request is also important. Make your requests SMART: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, based on a real need, and time-bound, he suggests.

For a request to be meaningful, you have to articulate your need in a way that resonates with others. The why question is central – both why the request matters to the person asking and why the people listening should care, Furnari explains.

Each profession or function has its own jargon, which helps create and reinforce silos, so articulate your request in non-technical language that is accessible to everyone. 

Leaders can also consider how to create events, spaces, and opportunities within a company where finance and non-finance colleagues can come together to share common challenges and best practices.

More research

Furnari has worked with media, executive search, banks, and financial services companies that seek to encourage colleagues to share best practice across functions. This is a particular challenge in these sectors, where incentives are based on individual, rather than collective, performance. In the simulations, Furnari has observed that there are normally three or four contributions of help and advice for every request made.

Also worth noting: The effects of silos being broken down can only be observed over a long period of time. Furnari and his colleagues have developed networking simulations to break organisational silos and are exploring their long-term outcomes in large organisations. They’re looking for opportunities to observe that continuing process in more companies.

In the organisations observed so far, this investment improves communication, collaboration, and collective problem-solving, Furnari says. People feel more comfortable asking for help. 

Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.