Graduate Alumni

News for Alumni

From the Desk of the Director

by Kim Patton

June 30, 2011


Do you have the mindset that if you are doing your job well and everyone in your company is doing his or her job well, all will succeed? If your answer is yes, you have fallen victim to the silo mentality.  Silo mentality comes from a metaphor drawn from the large grain silos that one sees throughout the U.S. Midwest. It is a term of derision that suggests that each department on an organization chart is a silo and that its stands alone, not interacting with any of the other departmental silos.  (BPtrends.com)

Companies of any size may fall victim to silo mentality and share the same characteristic; the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.  Everyone for themselves!  There’s no ‘I’ in team!

The symptoms of silo mentality are easy to recognize: lack of cooperation, internal competition and breakdown in communication.  The result is simple; survival of the fittest; department against department. 

Marcel Cote writes in CAmagazine.com that silo mentality tends to derive from decentralized management.  As a result, the interests of an ambitious manager’s department take precedence over the well-being of the organization.  Silos occur when one office starts to see its goals as more important than the entire company and when camaraderie takes a back seat to individualism.

The CEO/President/Owner of an organization may set demanding objectives and give managers the authority and means to achieve them. One manager may be instructed to increase sales, another to reduce costs and a third to keep a tight rein on finances. In delegating responsibilities, the senior leadership will often forget the importance of teamwork in meeting objectives.

The results are not hard to predict. Managers concentrate on their department’s objectives and disregard the rest of the goals of the organization. Since the manager doesn’t expect his peers to assist him in reaching his objectives, the manager, in turn, makes little effort to cooperate with other managers. Rather, he conveys the message that achieving his department's goals is paramount and other departments can take care of themselves.

However, abandoning the decentralized management model does not solve the silo mentality problem.  Organizations cannot be managed properly if power is concentrated at the top.  Decentralized management delegates authority to employees.  But with authority comes responsibility especially in putting the organization’s interests ahead of the department.

To escape the silo mentality, managers must learn to trust and respect their peers and share their objectives. Mistrust and disrespect allow silos to thrive.  Managers need to be taught to communicate clearly, gently, and inoffensively, avoiding blame and embarrassment, for the sake of cross-silo outcomes. If managers do not trust other divisions, and if they do not share common objectives, they will not cooperate and silos will appear.  (Peter Bregman, HBR Blog-blogs.hbr.org) The organization's structures and processes must support collaboration, encouraging co-workers to meet regularly to share what they are learning as well as to be taught the skills to give and receive feedback.

Leadership must promote the essential values of the organization.  One such value is to respect and understand each other across departments. Just as an organization cannot function if its executives are cheating it, it also cannot do well if leaders do not trust one other. And trust is unattainable without mutual respect.

The mark of a successful leader is the ability to manage these values and the principles that support them. Promoting mutual respect, trust and collaboration is more difficult when ambitious goals are given to each manager. Moreover, measuring performance on collaboration is not as easy as assessing whether a financial goal has been met. But both objectives are equally important, and if one is not measured, it will not be taken as seriously.

All the above helps in defeating silo mentality, but Peter Bregman remarks that even with all that support, direction, and skill, it requires one more critical ingredient: courage: The courage of a single person willing to take personal risks for the sake of the organization's success.

No matter how clearly leaders reward cross-silo outcomes, it takes great personal strength to identify and help correct a mistake in "someone else's" silo and to overcome the fear of the consequences of taking responsibility for a colleagues' work.

Don't become a victim of silo mentality. Everyone is responsible for the work of the organization and if there is a problem anywhere in the organization, everyone fails.

Leaders must refuse to allow people to go to their separate corners. Encourage people to meet regularly to share what they are learning. Have the courage to call out when one part of the organization is struggling and find a way to fix it together.