UCL School of Management

16 May 2024

UCL SoM Professors publish in Harvard Business Review: Cross-Silo Collaboration

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UCL School of Management Professor Martin Kilduff and Associate Professor Sunny Lee  have co-authored a significant article in the Harvard Business Review. Their research explores the benefits and hidden challenges of cross-silo collaboration in organisations and offers strategies to mitigate the associated challenges.

The Hidden Challenges of Cross-Silo Collaboration

In the modern business landscape, fostering collaboration across organisational silos—such as teams, divisions, or regional offices—has become essential for enhancing performance, driving innovation, and improving coordination. Employees who engage in these critical activities, often termed “boundary spanners” or “network brokers,” play a vital role by bridging gaps and facilitating the flow of ideas and resources. This can significantly boost their careers by exposing them to unique strategic information and insights from various parts of the organisation.

However, the research by reveals that these cross-silo activities come with significant risks. Their comprehensive study, involving over 2,000 working adults across two countries, shows that employees engaged in such collaboration often experience heightened levels of burnout and may develop negative social behaviours, including abusive behaviour towards colleagues.

Understanding the Cognitive and Emotional Toll

The study highlights the cognitive and emotional demands placed on boundary spanners. Engaging in cross-silo collaboration requires handling complex, conflicting information and perspectives, which can lead to increased burnout. The additional stress and exhaustion can manifest as aggressive or abusive behaviour, posing a threat to both the individuals involved and the organisational environment.

For instance, the case of Nilam, a hypothetical engine system engineer at a startup, illustrates these challenges. Nilam’s efforts to reconcile conflicting requirements from different teams led to overwhelming stress, highlighting the need for better support systems for employees in similar roles.

Strategies for Supporting Boundary Spanners

To address these challenges, the researchers propose three key strategies for organisations:

1. Strategically Integrate Cross-Silo Collaboration into Formal Roles

Organisations should formally recognise the role of boundary spanners in job descriptions, workload, and performance evaluations. This acknowledgment can help manage expectations and provide clarity about the demands of the role.

2. Provide Adequate Resources

Ensuring that employees have the necessary resources, such as technological tools and comprehensive training programmes, can help them manage the cognitive and emotional burdens of cross-silo collaboration. Recognition and incentives, such as awards for exemplary collaboration, can also mitigate burnout.

3. Develop Check-In Mechanisms and Opportunities to Disengage

Organisations should implement multifaceted approaches to detect and address burnout. This includes regular check-ins, observing changes in work habits, and conducting pulse surveys. Additionally, fostering a culture that values breaks and recovery time is crucial for helping employees disengage and recharge.

A Worthy Investment for Long-Term Success

While cross-silo collaboration is a double-edged sword, organisations can adopt these strategies to support their boundary-spanning employees. By investing in these approaches, companies can reduce the risk of burnout and create a healthier, more productive work environment.

The research, alongside Associate Professor Eric Quintane of ESMT, Assistant Professor Jung Won Lee of ESSEC Business School, and Assistant Professor Camila Umaña Ruiz of Pontificia Universidad Javerian​a, represents a significant contribution to understanding the complexities of cross-silo collaboration and offers valuable insights for organisations aiming to harness the benefits of these critical activities while safeguarding employee well-being.

Read the full HBR article: Why Employees Who Work Across Silos Get Burned Out.

Last updated Thursday, 16 May 2024