The Silo Mentality - How To Kill The Un-killable Beast

So what is a silo mentality and why is it so bad? Basically it is when the different divisions of an organisation seem, to the people in them, like different organisations altogether.  You might not think this applies to your organisation, especially if you are in a somewhat senior position, but in can look very different on the front line. A shared livery, universal HR and health and safety policies and accounting structure don't mean much to people who not only don't know anyone working in a different division but may have physically never gone to any site or part of a building other than the one that houses their department. Why is this so bad? Here's why:

  • It uses up enormous amounts of managers' time. When someone doesn't know anyone at another department who can help them resolve an issue between the two then the issues will be escalated up the hierarchy until it reaches a layer of management where people from different departments come into regular contact with each other. This eats up large parts of managers' days by essentially forcing them to act as a sort of switchboard for routine requests for help and information between people within the organisation.
  • It is a massive drag on efficiency. Quite aside from the time wasted waiting for questions to flow up one arm of the hierarchy, across to another, down to someone who might know the answer and then back again (assuming it comes back at all), it often prevents those question from even being asked in the first place. If you never come into contact with people who work in other departments you might not only have to wait to see if something you want to do will affect them, it might not even occur to you to that it might. This leads to conflict as the people in the other department say to themselves "look what those idiots at Sales/Production/Distribution/PR have done now, didn't it occur to them that we're trying to (insert other priority here)". This in turn can easily develop into acrimonious exchanges of emails between people who have little idea that the person they're talking to is basically a decent man or woman doing their best. More time and effort wasted, more people distracted.


The silo is always with us - except that it doesn't have to be


You would think by now that it is so obvious that organisations must try to reduce divisions to formal, logical groupings of functions for the purposes of internal accounting, internal efficiency (most issues people come across in their day-to-day work should be resolvable by talking to people they know doing closely related work) and career progression that the 'us and them' mentality would be largely gone. Yet in many organisations departments are akin to separate tribes within the organisation that, even if they don't actively discourage informal contact with other departments directly, certainly don't promote it. Here's how to start fixing that:

  1. Delegate: Its tough to give up control while maintaining responsibility but that is what you have to do to become a great manager. Identify good people, make them your subordinates and encourage them to do the same. Push as many decisions down the hierarchy as far as you can - your time is valuable and so are your subordinate's skills so you shouldn't be wasting either by giving your people less autonomy than they need to excel. Make it clear that if they need to talk to someone at their level in another department they should do just that and that you trust them to do that, not route the question through you.
  2. Socialise: It might sound wishy-washy to say that having a drink at the pub after work, or playing football with people from another department on a regular basis increases efficiency but it's true. People are social, and the blunt truth is that they don't like picking up the phone to talk to people they don't know and who might be rude or dismissive to them because there's no consequences to doing so. It's less daunting to think "I'll call Rita, she'll know what this is about", rather than "I'll have to get an answer out of someone at Sales".  
  3. Inform: People need to know what's going on across the organisation to realise how their actions could affect issues that are priorities for the organisation as a whole, and so ultimately for them too, but which are largely being handled or co-ordinated by other departments. A classic example of this not happening in the UK would be the big utility companies - their management must know that their long-term future is under threat from smaller rivals successfully competing with them on customer service, as many in their PR department probably know as well, yet it seems like that priority is not felt by many in the complaints divisions of these companies. This is a little-and-often project - a few company-wide memos and a quarterly internal newsletter isn't going to do it. Take five minutes at the beginning of your team meetings to talk about the wider context of your tasks for that week and refer to the priorities of the organisation when explaining your decisions. It all adds up.



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