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Why are Silos a Problem?

As organizational and leadership consultants, we at Side By Side, Inc. Breaking silos requires more than simple conflict managementfrequently ask leaders to share their biggest problem. One of the most frequent problems reported is "over-competitiveness" and "lack of teamwork across the departments and functions" inside their organization. In one company two department leaders had gotten into a yelling match in front of their subordinates and outside guests!


Silo Building 101

The phenomena of internal competition between departments inside organizations has been described as “empire building” or “silo building”. The description of a silo is ‘a tall, 20 foot or greater, sealed-off cylinder generally used for storing grain.’ In organizations silos isolate departments and people. Silo behavior often occurs between the leaders and workers of one department towards the leaders and workers from other departments within the same organization! Silos can be seen when:


  • Department information and knowledge are sealed off from other departments;
  • Workers do not talk to people outside their department;
  • The department does not offer to help or share resources with other parts of the organization;
  • The department only focuses on achieving their work goals even at the detriment of other work units and the organization as a whole.

The Damage from Silo Behavior is Self-Inflicted

Here is an example of what happens when departments fail to coordinate and support organizational goals. Engineers design new products that the marketing group cannot sell and the manufacturing group cannot build. Another typical damaging silo behavior occurs when one business unit of an organization has discovered new work processes that would help the other business units, but they keep them a secret.


Internal Competitiveness Destroys Cooperative “1+1= 3” Thinking

Organizational synergy suffers when silos and cross-departmental competitiveness predominate. Synergy happens when the work performance of two different departments produces a larger result than the simple addition of the two efforts together. Organizational synergy is often represented by the equation “1+1= 3”.


One executive explained to me how appalling the cross-functional competitiveness was in his organization by saying, “Here in our organization synergy is 1-1=0. Employees’ efforts are canceling each other out and we are going nowhere.” Today, I see many organizations where synergy is 1-1= 0, and they are going nowhere. The harder people in these organizations work the more they cancel each other out.


Why Do People Create Silos?

Silos are a problem. Why do they exist? I’d like to share with you a major contributing factor for the recent increase in silo behavior. This key principle is derived from the natural systems theory: When an organization’s survival is threatened from the outside, then emotional conflicts and silo behavior increase on the inside.


Organizations Under Threat, Experience More "Ganging Up"

One of the most frequent fear-of-survival silo behaviors happens when two or more people agree with each other that another person or department is the cause of their problems. Bowen Natural Systems Theory refers to such behavior as ‘triangles’ because they involve at least two people (although there could be more) on the inside, siding together against an outside third party. The key principle is that when an organization’s survival is threatened from the outside, without anyone’s awareness, people inside the organization increase their triangling behavior. Triangling behavior includes increased competitiveness, conflicts and silo behavior within the organization.


The US economy has recently experienced the worst economic downturn since the great depression of the 1930s. Together as we look at the rest of 2009 and into 2010, what do we see happening in the external economy and society outside the walls of business, government and faith-based organizations? We see this.


External Threats to Organizational Survival Trigger

... Internal Organizational Stress


Internal Organizational Stress Triggers

... Increased and Caustic Silo Behavior


The Great Paradox ...

The fact that destructive internal competition is influenced by events occurring outside the organization is a paradox. Most organizational consultants and leaders first try to solve the silo problem by looking inside the organization at the competitive departments themselves.


Conflict Management Alone Cannot Address the Causes of Silo Behavior

Many organizational leaders believe that conflict management is the solution. They want me to tell the competing departmental leaders to “cut it out”, believing that this will take care of the problem. These same leaders are not able to see the above contributing factor and the strategic role they must perform to change this silo dynamic.


Action You can Take Today

If you recognize the externally driven silo behavior within your organization, you may find the award winning book Side By Side Leadership helpful. It gives many alternative ways to overcome this silo problem. At a minimum, we hope that you will give us your thoughts and comments. We are always excited to hear what people think. Here at Side By Side, Inc, we are committed to delivering leadership training and materials that deliver real bottom line results.