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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Dealing with Silos: A Practical Approach

by Dean Harbry

Every day we walk into our office with the belief that we really can make a difference, and with the personal resolve to work long and hard to achieve results. We have our routines that prepare us—we get our coffee, check our email, and comb the news sites. We may have even worked out at the gym, or done something else that boosts our confidence, and then the inevitable happens. We get blindsided by something that wasn’t on our calendar. We get an angry call from one of our customers, or, an indication from our board, boss, or peers that something isn’t going right that needs our immediate attention. In a matter of minutes things change.  What started out as a good day is now suddenly a maelstrom of back-and-forths trying to figure out who caused the problem, and what needs to be done to resolve the issue. It’s called an adverse trend.

Adverse trends have the power to bring out the best and worst in people. Usually the worst. Humans have this need to be right, secure, and on top—we want to be in control—we want power and a paycheck at the end of the week, no matter what we have to do to get it. And if anyone is left standing at the end of the day, we want it to be us. My wife loves watching “The Apprentice” on TV, where celebrity teams are given a project and it’s up to the project manager to do better than the opposing team, or else face the judgment of Donald Trump when he says, “You’re fired.” How humiliating. And, what’s most interesting to watch is how the project manager relied upon people who she thought were friends, only to realize that these same people will throw her under the bus when push comes to shove. People can be so evil. Betrayals are so commonplace. The only reason Donald Trump succeeds with this show is because he feeds on factions and plays off the dark side of human behavior. By all measures, clearly, Donald Trump is an amateur manager. He leads by fear and intimidation and judges people by how well they manipulate and undermine their opponent (who is, by the way, on their own team). It reminds me of my fish aquarium when I was little, and how the mother guppies would eat their young. “The Apprentice” offers a good example of self-centeredness and betrayal—the dark side of human behavior—the same behavior we so easily slip into, when we face adverse trends.

We actually see this phenomenon everywhere. In business, church, community, neighborhoods, our children, and yes, even in ourselves at times. Some people have simply given up and adopted this human condition as an ongoing reality, a way of life. “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Yet, for those companies that are exceptional at customer service and overall growth, they’ve usually found ways to bridge the gap, and create collaboration and teamwork at an exemplary level. They don’t follow Donald Trump’s example. To the degree that companies maintain and encourage interpersonal dysfunction, they limit their ability to grow and compete with the business elites. Where does this unwanted human response to adverse trends originate? Usually in kindergarten, our first real shot at teamwork. But at least there we had someone who knows what’s best for us, and who kept the rules of appropriate interaction in place with some form of sanction, to cultivate the better response in our tiny, self-centered little minds. And, in a more grownup kind of way, that’s exactly what we need in corporate; a human incentive system led by people we respect and who know what they are doing, to cultivate the right results.

Dysfunction Grows like Mold in your Bathroom

For anything to stay clean and well-functioning, maintenance is required. Even those fancy gutters you bought for your house. The same is true with corporate culture. Without regular maintenance it will devolve into disrepair.

In business we have a universal document that everyone calls the organization chart. It’s a very important description of reporting relationships and articulates how people are organized into related groups of business units with a box at the top that tells everyone who is in charge. All companies need them, because human beings need them. Everyone needs to know who they report to and what’s expected of them, to be happy and mentally healthy. In reality we all have a need for identity, so no wonder that we love the idea of working with likeminded people who share the same interest and passion around a common set of skills and abilities. We like people who are like us. We find it easy to talk shop and exchange stories due to our commonality. And, if one is attacked, we are all attacked—it is a brotherhood of sorts.

The problem with the organization chart is that most people read it one way and go no further. They see it as a single dimension, from top to bottom. Now, all CEOs instinctively know what’s required for the company to do well and they believe the org chart communicates the concept of work and collaboration well. The real trick for them is to get everyone else to see what’s obvious to them. Here’s how it works. Through marketing and sales functions, we bring work into the enterprise. Then things happen internally so that once we’ve done our magic, the output then flows back out to the clients, what they want, in an accurate and timely manner. Unless you have some research arm to your business, the people who all report up to the CEO have a part to play. For some it’s simply support, like technology, HR, etc, but for others, they are actively involved in filling the order, somewhere along the way. So, in a sense, we are organized top-down, but the workflow takes us left-to-right, that is, horizontal to the org chart. There are sales, handoffs, quality checks, fulfillment and shipping as a part of the process to move work through the organization. It’s just like people participating in the wave at a baseball game. You have to do the right thing at the right time for it to work. To have satisfactory output requires a great deal of collaboration, relationship management (with bosses, peers, subordinates and vendors), and a form of execution that provides a timely response so as not to frustrate the client concerning their expectations and timetables. It’s an easy concept and simple to understand. In fact, it seems so easy to understand that most CEOs will use the org chart as a discussion point to address concerns around collaboration. It says it all! It tells everybody what they need to know, to know what to do. And really, it’s true! Then what gets in the way? Humanity.

The Silo Effect

To be an effective, professional leader means that one knows how to manage human behavior in its current state. That “current state” usually involves managing difficult employees, particularly when adverse trends arise. Without anticipating and knowing how to manage the upsets (like that kindergarten teacher), havoc will reign, and efficiency will suffer.

Because we are organized in columns, which are really silos, we the employees direct most if not all of our energy within that structure. If I fail to be responsive to the boss, or helpful to my departmental colleagues, I can and will suffer career impact. But, if someone else from another department has a need, I may not feel as compelled to oblige. After all, my boss has access to the corporate largess and pays me to do what she wants, not these other guys. A one-way view of the org chart (top to bottom only) can create a silo mindset.

Further, if someone from another area lobs a grenade my way, and accuses me or my department of dropping the ball, my natural instincts will lead me to a fight and defend myself. I will, as a consequence, develop a fortress mindset, put up a wall, and retaliate by undermining their success or by withholding resources. This is the silo effect, and all teamwork and collaboration breaks down from there. Some companies observing this dynamic think that the way to solve the problem is to convert to a matrix organization, where the columns of the org chart are de-emphasized and the focus becomes collaboration, literally turning the org chart sideways. This scenario creates the proverbial gofer hole, in that by fixing some problems, it causes others. The wretched beast will raises its ugly head in another place and causes more problems that are likely worse than the first. People need accountability and leadership, but there must also be a structure in place to deal with the blurry lines between departments and work units that help them to process professionally, and manage relationships. The bottom line is that you need both organization and collaboration for a company to work well. So how does that happen?

Org Chart Dynamics

Let’s first look at the dynamics of the org chart, beyond the basic interpretation, as it tells a very interesting and important story. We’ll start by discussing what happens at the top, and what happens at the bottom:

The output at the top of the org chart is judgment and influence. This is a leader’s primary job. If he or she is involved in vocational work, it means that either the company is very small in size or else the leader is really an amateur manager. Companies work best when the CEO (or Executive Director in the nonprofit setting) is fulfilling the role and activities that go along with that job. This means they are refraining from doing their subordinates’ work and they are leveraging the resources available to them. Technically, they are the ones farthest away from the actual work, and therefore need to be well connected to what’s happening in the enterprise to have good judgment and to know where to influence. That can only happen if the cultural underpinnings promote communication in a safe environment. One telling example is how organizational leaders deal with adverse trends. Here’s the test. When things go wrong, do you search for culprits or simply work hard to solve the problem? If employees perceive that it’s a search for culprits rather than seeking solutions to problems, they will hide and go underground and not report adverse trends when they occur. Bad scenario, but that’s humanity—human nature at work. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Gee, I think I’ll get into a car accident today.” No-one (unless psycho- or sociopathic) really intends to either make mistakes or necessarily plans for every contingency.  Problems are going to occur, and good companies become great companies by understanding this principle and by developing their direct reports to cultivate the right behaviors over time—announcing adverse trends early in a safe environment. If instead of searching for culprits you bring needed resources to the table to fix the problem, a development environment will exist and people will actually learn from the hardship. No real learning occurs in a culprit-finding climate, other than how to avoid detection.

At the bottom of the org chart is technical expertise and vocational output. The focus here is on execution and deliverables. They are the ones who “have the ball.” Remember that if a basketball coach wants one of his players to improve his free throws, the coach must keep his hands off the ball, and let the player improve his skill, versus the coach improving his own skill; this to reinforce the above principle of not doing subordinates’ work. Because those at the bottom have the ball, they also have some of the best information and the best vantage point on how the process is really working. They are an incredible source of good information. But, as Daniel Goleman describes in his book, “Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence,” CEOs succumb to CEO Disease because they have no real feedback mechanism; they cut themselves off to any good and useful information, all because of the culture and climate they develop. CEOs need to do a better job of removing the barriers and seek honest and candid feedback from those under their domain.

Let’s now pull the lens back and look at the vertical and horizontal dynamics of the org chart.

In the vertical view, the traditional look at the org chart, you have hierarchy, made up of bosses, peers and subordinates. It’s an authority structure that speaks to internal governance and organization. The focus is on particular deliverables (your departmental charter) and job descriptions usually contain what’s expected of you, but only in this context! One is motivated by responsibility and accountability to the boss, and modern-day job descriptions keep the one-lens view of the org chart alive and predominant in most people’s minds.

In the horizontal view, what you have are project managers, project teams, and the only real mode of leadership and governance is through influence. Project managers have to be particularly skilled in influence to do a good job, as they are competing in a sense with the project team member’s boss. What’s most important to them (the PMs) is not necessarily most important to the project team member. And, whereas in the vertical view, people are motivate by responsibility and accountability, here a person must be motivated by service. Perhaps this describes why many project teams run past deadline and beyond the original budget. For workflow to improve, a company must cultivate a sense of service in their employees. This can only happen with the organizational leader’s help and influence.

Now let’s address the differing roles.

The CEO is really the person who should be casting the vision for the company community and provide good human incentive systems to promote collaboration. The typical top-down, commanding style is very ineffective at creating the kind of collaboration necessary in today’s environment. You’ll find evidence of this truth in the works of Daniel Goleman, Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, John Maxwell, etc. I used the words, “human incentive systems.” Remember that human nature is very predictable and will more times than not react out of emotion, not logic. Knowing how to manage human behavior during adverse trends is critical for a leader’s success.

The employee’s role, in addition to providing quality technical expertise in whatever discipline they’ve chosen, is to work with their bosses, peers, subordinates and vendors in a way that yields good results. This means that in addition to staying current in their craft, if they are really going to provide value to the enterprise, they must also be strong in peer relationship skills and in influence skills. To be the best they can be, they must develop an owner mentality, and see the company through the CEOs eyes. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s possible and can be done through team contracts.

Meeting both Organizational and Collaboration Needs of the Enterprise

As mentioned previously, the org chart is an absolute must. It helps the employees know who is in charge and for what they are responsible. It helps to meet identity needs and it clearly states who has accountability for what. You can’t skimp here! However, the CEO also needs to be aware of the need to communicate expectations as it relates to workflow and collaboration needs apart from the org chart. We are dealing with humans, and my prior example of the kindergarten teacher really does apply! Not because people need to be treated like children, but because simply having an expectation and talking about what good behavior looks like proves ineffective unless you have a justice system and sanctions for bad behavior. Simply expecting “them” to “get it” is proof that you are borderline insane! Sorry! Remember, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Fear not, there really is a way to address the problem.

Team Contracts

The first thing a CEO should do after creating an org chart is to devise a team contract. I use the term contract, not in a legal sense, but more like a covenant. It’s a collection of principles that guide people in interpersonal and team behavior, promoting communication and clarity. The content presents ways to engage in debate, how to deal with adverse trends, and other principles which become conditions of employment! The team contract describes how people collaborate across the enterprise (the org chart, left-to-right, in addition to top-down). Now, having defined the principles is not enough—there must be an enforcement mechanism for this to work well. It can and only will be kept alive if the leader has a commitment to manage and promote its principles. The contents provide guidance regarding professional management skills. Below is an example of team contract principles that should show up in your covenant:

Peer relationship skills. Maintaining strong peer relationships is essential to enterprise communication and collaboration; therefore, it is our responsibility to foster and maintain strong peer relationships by committing ourselves to other’s success. In doing so, each team member agrees to go directly to their peers when they’ve detected an adverse trend in their (the peer’s) areas of responsibility. Going to the boss first raises the question as to whether there is a true commitment to a peer’s success. Employees are also expected to manage conflict constructively with their peers, and in a way that will yield mutual respect. The evidence of good peer relationship skills is the active support of peers, bosses, and subordinates.

I’m going to tell you a true story related to the above principle. I managed a group of fifteen people once, and one employee came to me with a complaint about her peer. The list of complaints went on and on—she was really emotionally hooked by the other person’s lack of response and attention to her needs, in her department. I was the manager to both of these individuals. What do you think she expected me to do? After all, I was the boss! She expected me to fix this other guy and let him have it for not being a good corporate citizen. What she got from me was not what she expected.

I stated that I appreciated the information, but that she was talking to the wrong person. I was happy to help coach her through this crisis, but the one who needed to confront this individual was her! Her response was, “This is a crock of $@%$!” You get the point. I reminded her that the condition of employment was to maintain strong peer relationship skills and that she needed to go to this person directly, and I would hold her accountable. She was clearly not happy. I told her that if she went to him and told him everything she just told me and, and if for some reason it did not work out well, to come back. Only, if she came back, she would have to bring this other person with her; and, at the moment she crossed the threshold of my door, she would actually be saying, “Boss, I’m failing in my peer relationship skills.” You can imagine why she wasn’t happy with me that day—her boss wasn’t helping her.

Guess what happened. When she went to this guy, he basically said, “What, you came to me rather than going to the boss? I guess I can trust you.” And, they worked it out. They worked it out so well that they became the tightest team members of the group. They were inseparable and covered each other’s back during times of adverse trends. It just goes to show you that when you apply the principles, addressing human incentive systems, they work. Not only were their lives changed by this event, it helped them frame other relationships in the same way (spouse, children, etc). Another principle:

Adverse Trends. It is the responsibility of the each person on the team to detect and report their adverse trends to the boss as quickly as possible. This is a self-monitoring exercise. Reporting an adverse trend is not a failure. We are not looking for culprits but for solutions to problems. The more quickly they are detected, the easier they are to address and remedy.

Whenever I ask organizational leaders how soon they want to know about adverse trends, the answer is always the same. “Yesterday,” meaning before it happens if at all possible. This is a crucial mechanism for the survival of your business. You’ll notice though, that embedded in the adverse trend principle is a commitment by management not to search for culprits, but to seek solutions to problems. Real life means that bad things are going to happen, and to the degree we as leaders get upset and respond in anger is the day we lose our influence and authority over our people. Remember that the organizational leader will drive the culture and climate of the organization. The idea of a team contract must be top of mind and enforced accordingly through the use or professional management skills, at every turn. Let’s look at one other term for our contract.

Boundary Management. The responsibilities and communication between departments are oftentimes gray and require flexibility. Handoffs can become difficult, causing the ball to be dropped. Boundary management means that we commit to clear communications, to ensure that handoffs are done well. Since teams are multi-disciplinary, each member agrees to provide a seamless effort toward team goals, by managing the boundaries between departments.

The above principles are just samples of what goes into a team contract. I’ve seen over a hundred documented principles for team contracts, but it’s best to start simple with a just a few, and then add to what you have when circumstances require. How do you know when you need another principle for the contract? You’ll encounter another organizational difficulty that uncovers a cultural need. You bridge that need with a new principle that speaks directly to the issue. It’s a way to manage a culture and to ensure collaboration in the enterprise with clean communications skills—an organizational leader must provide ground rules for interactions to avoid the ordinary pitfalls of the silo effect.

Job Descriptions

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone’s job description included not only their responsibilities and accountabilities within their own department, but also a description of their organizational roles in order to create a written expectation of those duties as well? It’s an enterprise view that’s missing from modern-day job descriptions.

Let’s say your job is a sales representative. The function of the lead generation group is to get notice to you of a warm lead. Hopefully you have a process that provides seamless connection with this group. But, if there are special needs or circumstances, will they have the discernment, and are they committed to your success to the degree that they will let you know? Once the sale is made, your boss is happy, but, how about delivery? Did they get everything they needed to ensure the customer’s satisfaction? Did you promise something they can’t deliver? Did you check with them on the special order to make sure they can deliver, and in the time you promised to the customer? Are your contracts sound? Do they comply with the legal department’s requirements? One mistake can result in the loss of a customer. As simple and intuitive as all this sounds, add a bit of dynamic complexity to the equation. Let’s say there are now new employees in both lead generation and in delivery. And, due to new specifications, it takes extended time to install certain pieces of equipment that seems to be perpetually back-ordered. It throws the whole system out of whack. When things go wrong, to simply assert that “Hey, I did my job, I made the sale, it’s their problem now,” offers no relief to the department struggling to meet arbitrary deadlines without any concern for the entire process or customer experience. This is why instilling an owner mindset, through organizational roles, in addition to ordinary job description expectations, is critical for collaboration in the enterprise.

And, in the above situation, imagine what would be different if this employee also understood and was held accountable to the above three simple principles that are a part of a team contract: peer relationship skills, adverse trend reporting, and boundary management. Developing a culture that is supported by team contracts and expanded job descriptions are two major steps in bridging the gap when it comes to collaboration. But, there is more…

Performance Appraisals

You will incent the behaviors you reward. Remember this old adage? Well, it’s true with respect to the performance appraisal as well. Most companies I’ve worked with have struggled with this process. What questions should we ask? It’s about company vision and teamwork, right? All the while, most of what we put on an employee appraisal is meaningless to everyday work. What if we turned that around? What if the benchmarks we call principles in the team contract were a clear section on the appraisal? Imagine these questions on your evaluation form:

1-      Describe employee employee’s commitment and performance regarding peer relationship skills. Give examples.

2-      Rate the employee on his/her willingness to announce adverse trends in a timely manner. Give examples.

3-      How effective was employee in boundary management—providing communication and support between departments, commensurate with their organizational role? Give examples.

Wouldn’t these performance evaluation questions create a different climate and put the emphasis where it’s needed most—collaboration? For some reason, we think our performance appraisals need to look just like everyone else’s. I guess if we want our company and results to look like theirs, it makes sense. This process could very well create a competitive advantage.


Imagine what it would be like if these three collaboration support systems were put into place in your company. How would it affect the silo mentality? Would you have more forward movement with initiatives, and less sideways energy? Would leaders and managers have more time as employees became more self-managing and more self-monitoring? Would you have less employee turnover due to clear rules of the road, with an enforcement system that is consistent across the board for leaders, managers, and all employees? Would there be cleaner and more committed relationships in the enterprise? How would this change your company? Imagine the benefit to employees, managers, leaders and shareholders. Nobody loses—everybody wins.

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Dean is President and CEO of Internal Innovations (, located in Atlanta, Georgia. His company is committed to developing influence skills in organizational leaders to promote healthy climates inside of the business and nonprofit enterprise. Dean and his wife have been married for 30 years and enjoy fitness activities. Dean just completed his twenty second marathon in February of 2011.

4 Responses to “Dealing with Silos: A Practical Approach”

  1. Fred B says:


    Great article and LOTS of good content.

  2. dharbry says:

    Thanks, Fred. My thinking is to the degree we hope to accomplish results, it must be framed with humanity in mind. A utilitarian approach is not effective to cultivate a service mindset in people. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Lorna Rogers Reisner says:

    There is a lot of top down management in healthcare. The most educated, the physician takes this lead clinically and although it may seem logical there is too much information from too many entities for a single person to shoulder all responsibilty. There is trend to discourage this leadership and class system as it has an adverse effect on communication and team work necessary to deliver safe healthcare.

    I enjoyed your articles, they provide food for thought that may culminate to postive change.

  4. Dean Harbry says:

    I totally agree Lorna. I’ve worked with leaders in other medical environments, and the mistake is to take the most competent physician and make him or her the managerial leader. This simply does not work–the competencies of leadership are very different than the technical skills one acquires on the job as a doctor or surgeon. Leadership is about influencing and inspiring others to do good work, leveraging their skills and talents. It’s a discipline that requires deep understanding of human incentive systems along with strong people skills. Healthcare has been known to be a tough place to work–hopefully some will look to the good examples of corporate business to draw some leaning and development they can then apply to their work environments. Thanks for your post.


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