Breaking Out of Silos

Published: Jan 24, 2019

Bob is one of his company’s best managers. He has an idea for a system that would facilitate e-mail campaigns within his company. However, he needs the support of the organization’s tech department to implement the idea. Unfortunately, the head of the tech department runs her department like a fiefdom and is resistant to any ideas that don’t come from within the department. Woe to the product manager or other colleague who dares to propose operational changes, even ones that will increase her team’s productivity.

Marla refuses to listen to Bob. She ignores his e-mails. At meetings with their mutual supervisor, she gives lip-service to Bob’s idea, and promises to follow up with Bob, but has yet to do so. Bob can’t get the support of Marla’s staff members. Her caustic manner with her peers has led to similar behavior by her staff members. They have become deaf to requests for even minor changes to e-marketing on the company’s Website unless Marla has approved the changes. Since Marla believes that such changes interfere with the flow of new work, changes are often undone until it is too late for them to have any effect on the sales effort.

What is the nature of the problem?

Marla is being uncooperative because she feels that her authority over the work area is being threatened. If she accepts Bob’s idea, Bob will be dictating how her department operates, and he will also get credit for any immediate benefits from the new system he wants to install. In self-defense, Marla has made a silo out of her department, operating with little or no interest in the needs or concerns of other areas of the organization.

Bob’s problem isn’t uncommon. Today’s decentralized, team-oriented organizations would seem to have made the so-called silo mentality less likely, but that just isn’t so. In many corporations, battles over decisions, finances, resources and, most important, power and authority are fought as bitterly as any street gang rumbles over territory or turf. The 2003 Survey on Leadership Challenges (see,conducted by American Management Association, found that getting people from different parts of an organization to work together is among the biggest obstacles facing business leaders today. Almost 100 percent of respondents felt silos had a negative effect on their organizations, leading to turf wars, power struggles and personality conflicts, all of which translated into lack of cooperation and poorer performance.

The personal/professional costs are just as high. Opportunities to demonstrate one’s creativity are lost. During corporate rumbles, managerial reputations can be damaged. Frustrated by the infighting, some executives resign for work in more collegial atmospheres. Peter Drucker said, “Every decision has two elements: (1) what you would ideally like to do, and (2) what you are actually able to do.” Many talented executives find the former impossible because of resistance from the very people who should support their efforts and objectives.

What can you do to tear down silos in your organization and reduce conflicts and increase collaboration?

  •  Close communication gaps. What you actually communicate is not always what you wish to communicate. Likewise, what you hear is not necessarily the other person’s message. The actual message can get lost. So you need to be conscious of how you phrase your messages.

  • Be assertive. If you want to state your thoughts, even though they reflect a difference in thinking from that of a colleague, say, “I think…” If you want to share your opinion with one of those individuals, even if your opinion is contrary to theirs, say, politely but clearly, “I believe…” If you want to express your feelings, such as anger, because of someone’s indifference to your feelings, say “I feel angry …” or “I am angry when...”

  • Reward cooperative behavior. Too many companies talk about collaboration yet reward only for individual achievement. You engender the behavior you positively reinforce.

  • Encourage innovation. Process routine may minimize errors, and save costs, but it can close people’s ears to better ways of doing something and gaining bigger savings. By encouraging the search for innovative ways to do the work, leaders and managers can increase efficiencies and effectiveness—and pull down turfdoms.

  • Create a culture of collaboration. As a first step, open communication—in person, on paper and online—can lead to shared information and keep the seeds of turfdoms from sprouting. Senior management has to model the cooperative behavior it wants from those on the rungs below. Trust across disciplines has to be planted by managers skilled in interpersonal communication.
  •  Clarify responsibilities. You want your people to understand their roles. You also want them to understand the roles of others. But you also have to make clear everyone’s biggest responsibility—to delight the customer and gain market share for the company by competing with the real corporate enemy—the competition.
  •  Find opportunities for cross-functional initiatives. There can be turf battles among teams. Strong leaders and dedicated members can make a group into more than a team—more a gang with no other goal than to surpass every other team’s performance even if the company as a whole might lose. To discourage team dysfunction, encourage teams from different areas of an organization to work together. Find opportunities for managers and other employees in the organization to work in cross-functional teams. Managers should invite peers from other areas of the organization to visit their team meetings, even make them members of the group, when they work on mutually beneficial efforts.

  • Enter white spaces cautiously. There may be areas of the business that represent opportunities for revenue generation that no one has yet to enter. Rather than trying to take the territory without notifying other potential occupants of the white space, meet with them to get buy-in for your intervention. Better yet, agree to leverage the white space together. 

  •  Hold retreats to build camaraderie. Put senior management and their staffs through a process that builds conflict resolution and interpersonal skills and clarifies the importance of cooperation to achieve corporate goals and the costs of a failure to do so.

Silos are prisons, and breaking out of them isn’t easy. But once you have, you and your organization will find the freedom to succeed.