A common form of conflict that we see in organizational life is called “Silo Thinking.” It is common because organizations of all types are made up of different groups of people. These groups are normally arranged so that the individual groups add up to get the work done most efficiently.
For example, in a manufacturing operation you might see a design group, a production group, a quality group, a finance group, and a management group. Each of these groups will have one person who is in charge of that group. By design, these groups take on the parochial viewpoints of their function. That polarization leads to the most common form of conflict in the workplace known as “Silo Thinking.”
You would think that having different groups would create efficiency due to specialization, and you would be right, except it also encourages the groups to squabble and fight. Emotions run high when one group feels attacked because of the desires of the other group. People can resort to all kinds of methods to get their way. For example, it is common to have some name calling involved, especially if the opposing groups use email to communicate. People in the groups will become adamant that their way of viewing the situation is the only correct approach.
To spot silo thinking in groups that communicate mostly via email, look for “we versus they” wording in the notes. For example, a note might read, “We wanted to postpone the introduction until all the bugs were worked out, but they thought we were ready.”
The easy way to break the cycle of Silo Thinking is to get the groups to recognize they share a common goal at the next higher level. They are really not in opposition; they are on the same team. It is like the offense and defense groups on a football team. Both groups want to win the game, but they often view a situation from their perspective.
Reminding people that they are on the same team is effective, but sometimes you need to do more than that to break up the silo thinking. I found that swapping some members of one team for members of the other team is often helpful. When it becomes hard to tell which group is which, you have broken the cycle, and the silos no longer exist.
I once made a lot of progress by swapping the leader of one group with the leader of the other group. It was interesting to watch the walls of the silos melt before my eyes. It did not take long.
Stay alert for the signs of silo thinking at work or at home and take steps to intervene early before much damage is done.
Free Bonus Video
Here is the link to a short video on Silo Thinking:
Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 1000 rticles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.